Prosecutor dismisses charges on eve of ‘ag gag’ trial

By: - January 18, 2022 7:58 pm

Hogs in a livestock production facility. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

An assistant Wright County attorney moved Tuesday to dismiss the criminal charges against an animal-rights activist accused of trespassing at a Dows hog confinement, placing recording devices inside the facility and stealing a piglet in May 2020.

The request came two days before a trial was set to begin for Matthew A. Johnson, 35, of Berkeley, California, for burglary, electronic or mechanical eavesdropping and food operation trespass.

Johnson, a press coordinator for Direct Action Everywhere, had planned to claim “defense of necessity” at trial — that he broke the law to save a sick piglet, he told Iowa Capital Dispatch.

His attorneys have also challenged the validity of the trespassing charge, which has a heightened penalty because it’s tied to a “food operation.” Other so-called “ag gag” laws designed to punish activists for surreptitiously recording inside agricultural facilities have been found unconstitutional in Iowa.

But before a judge could rule on that challenge, Assistant Wright County Attorney Joseph Corrow moved to dismiss all charges Tuesday “in the interest of justice,” according to court records. Corrow did not respond to a request to comment for this article.

Jen Sorenson, a spokesperson for Iowa Select Farms, which operates the Dows facility, said the charges were dismissed because of unspecified issues with evidence in the case.

“We respect the county attorney’s decision and are appreciative of his efforts over the past year,” Sorenson told Iowa Capital Dispatch. “Even though the case was dismissed, the fact an individual criminally trespassed on Iowa Select Farms property does not change.”

The company had sought to prevent two of its employees from being photographed during the trial, in part because Direct Action Everywhere has allegedly harassed and ambushed other employees, court records show.

District Judge Derek Johnson did not immediately dismiss the charges Tuesday but indicated during a conference call with attorneys he would.

Less than a year ago, a Grundy County prosecutor also dropped trespassing charges against Johnson — again just before trial — in a similar case in which Johnson recorded Iowa Select Farms employees killing thousands of pigs near the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when demand for the animals plummeted amid shutdowns.

Sorenson said Iowa Select Farms asked the Grundy County prosecutor to dismiss the charges in the first case but said no one at the company made that request in the recent Wright County case.

Johnson’s defense attorneys had intended to have several high-ranking officials of Iowa Select Farms testify at the trial, including Jeff Hansen, its founder and chief executive, Noel Williams, its chief operations officer, and Sorenson, its communications director.

“We were looking forward to the opportunity of putting Iowa Select Farms on trial as much as they’re putting us on trial,” Johnson said. “But it’s a win. It’s pretty telling that they invest the resources that they did to come after us and say the things that they say to make us out to be terrorists, and when push comes to shove they’re not at all interested in publicly defending their actions.”

Johnson said he had hoped the case would establish a “right to rescue” livestock from animal confinements, similar to freeing a dog from a hot car.

Johnson and another person, Linda Cridge, went to the Iowa Select Farms site near Dows in north-central Iowa in the early morning hours of May 25, 2020, court records show. Johnson said he placed a container inside that had a camera, a power source and an internet hotspot to transmit the footage. He alleges the camera captured unlawful, blunt-force killings of piglets. Johnson said he also placed an audio recorder in an office area.

Johnson said Iowa Select Farms learned of the incident days later when he posted a photo on social media that showed he had been inside the facility. The facility’s video surveillance recorded Johnson walk out with a 12-pound piglet in his arms, court records show.

Cridge, 55, of Fishers, Indiana, who was represented by a different attorney, pleaded guilty this month to entering an animal facility with intent to disrupt operations and received a deferred judgment, which means she won’t be formally convicted of the crime if she abides by the terms of her one-year probation. She was also fined $855.

“This is the second time we’ve stared down the State of Iowa, and in both cases charges against Matt were dropped on the eve of trial, in the interest of justice,” said Adam Junaid, a Waterloo attorney who represents Johnson. “If justice could speak for itself, it would have demanded these cases be dismissed long before now.”

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.