Friday, December 11, 2015

A Horrifying Reminder of Federal Abuse of Power

It's a documentary titled Dinosaur 13 about the legal battle over possession of the largest, most complete T. rex fossil yet found, and how the people who found and excavated it were sent to prison for doing so.  I was terrified of how to summarize this travesty of justice while verifying the accuracy of what the film presents, but Roger Ebert's review does it well without any spoilers:
For 17 days, his small team used picks and shovels in 115-degree heat to free Sue and haul her away for safekeeping at their facility. There, they painstakingly cleaned and restored her for two years, with plans to build a nonprofit natural history museum in Hill City where Sue would be the main attraction. Invaluable archival footage from this period captures such hold-your-breath moments as when workers gingerly separate Sue’s fragile head from her pelvis.

But the community’s dreams for Sue quickly crumbled in 1992, after a battalion of FBI agents and National Guard soldiers descended upon the institute. Claiming that the dinosaur was stolen from federal land, officials ordered that she and countless other fossils stored there be seized and carted away to a university in Rapid City that was 30 miles away. There they would sit until a 1995 trial would eventually determine their ultimate fate.

Larson is the most obvious hero, especially after he and some of his colleagues faced a 153-charge, 39-count federal indictment ranging from conspiracy to custom violations. As he angrily says in the film, “If you add up the time served for each of those counts, it comes to 353 years for me–which is longer than Jeffrey Dahmer was sentenced to prison for, and he killed and ate, like, 15 people.”

But there are a few possible villains lurking about. The state’s grand-standing U.S. attorney. A vindictive judge who took offense when Larson’s defenders tried to have him dropped from the case. The best candidate for Paleontology Enemy No. 1 would be Maurice Williams, a Sioux who owned the area where Sue was found. Larson wrote him a check for $5,000 at the time and they sealed the deal with a handshake. Turns out, it was tribal property held in trust by the Department of Interior. Williams muddied matters more by denying the money was for Sue but to compensate him for having disturbed his land.
When you get watching the film and reading Judge Battey's (apt name, that) decision  that a fossil is real estate, not an separable artifact, you will understand why so many Americans regard the federal government with contempt, even aside from the madness of sending a paleontologist to SuperMax federal prison (where Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber were locked up). Millions of dollars spent on a criminal trial with 153 criminal counts, resulting primarily in misdemeanor convictions.

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