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Animal-rights activist rejects Somerset County plea deal
Published in the Home News Tribune 12/21/02

Robin Webb would rather stay 3,500 miles away from his wife on Christmas than admit he broke the law during an animal-rights protest.

Webb, the British press officer for the extremist Animal Liberation Front, has rejected a deal from the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office requiring him to plead guilty to violating a court order that would have sent him home after paying a $1,000 fine, according to a letter from Webb's attorney to the prosecutor.

Webb was arrested Dec. 1 outside Huntingdon Life Sciences in Franklin Township, Somerset County, during a protest of alleged animal abuse at the laboratory. Police contend Webb broke the law by cutting through private property to become the 51st person in a protest zone limited by a judge's order to 50.

Webb was charged with contempt and on Thursday was indicted for the fourth-degree crime, which carries up to 18 months in prison. As part of bail conditions, he cannot return home to England. In the meantime, Webb is staying with fellow activists in Franklin.

"My only way of returning home, even for a few days over the Christmas period to be with my family, is to plead guilty to something I haven't done, to something that is classified as a crime," said Webb, who turns 58 on Tuesday. "And I have no intention of being blackmailed into pleading guilty to a crime merely to go home for Christmas to be with my family. That clearly shows the inhumane face of the American judicial system."

Webb also said he rejected the offer because pleading guilty to an indictable crime would bar his return to the United States, and he considered the fine "ridiculously excessive for merely walking across a piece of grass."

Sgt. Marie Bandtlow, a spokeswoman for the Franklin Township Police Department, said the protest was videotaped, and those tapes have been turned over as evidence.

"We had a number of officers doing physical counts" of the number of protesters, she said. And "Mr. Webb did not just walk down the street to get to this area. He went above and beyond to enter the protest area, hence going over the allotted number, which they were all made aware of."

Prosecutor Wayne J. Forrest said yesterday that the plea offer is no longer available because it was made before Thursday's indictment, and he did not believe another one had been offered. He said his office would pursue the charges.

"We have to do our job," Forrest said. "The grand jury did theirs; they evaluated the evidence and made their decision. It's our responsibility to proceed with what their actions are. We have to proceed with that indictment at this point."

Defense attorney Bill Strazza said he will ask a judge to dismiss the indictment. He also has asked that Webb be allowed to return home for the holidays but had not heard from the court as of last night.

"I fully expect to go to trial unless the prosecutor sees the light of day and decides to dismiss this case," Strazza said. "I suspect they're not going to do that."