To Food and Felonies

[from City Newspaper]

Adam Durand's palms were sweating.

A few minutes before 2 p.m. last Thursday, a Wayne County court clerk addressed the 26-year-old packaging designer from Rochester as "the defendant" and asked him to rise.

"When I was asked to stand to hear the verdict, it was an incredible moment," he recalls. "My heart was racing."

Durand was facing nine different counts, three each of criminal trespassing, petit larceny, and felony burglary. Each burglary charged carried the possibility of a jail sentence of up to seven years.

The charges stemmed from his role in sneaking onto Wegmans egg farm in Wolcott to make a film and taking hens out with him on each of the three trips --- 11 hens in all. (Durand and his fellow activists said they took only hens that were sick or dying --- he and his supporters used the word "rescue"; the district attorney and Wegmans prefer "stole.")

A year later, in 2005, the fruit of his efforts --- a 27-minute documentary titled "Wegmans Cruelty" --- was released. (It was screened at the Little Theatre as part of its Emerging Filmmakers Series.) But Durand's story and the story of the grocery company had been working their way toward this conclusion for a long time.
In the summer of 2003 he first saw a video of an egg farm that employed battery cages: a type of cage where several laying hens essentially live out their lives in tight quarters, along with several other birds. Ninety-five percent of the nation's egg supply comes from hens living in such cages.

"I wasn't really interested in farm-animal issues at that point," he says, but "I knew this had to be stopped."
The way Americans think about food has been in a state of more or less constant flux for at least the past several decades. There was a time when a majority of the people in the US lived on a farm. Those days are long gone, and few people can tell you exactly where their food comes from or how it's made. Since the middle of the past century, food and food production has become increasingly mechanized and globalized, but also increasingly tinged with political and social meaning.
The film is not for the faint of heart. Jason Wadsworth, the production manager at Wegmans egg farm, appeared uncomfortable with the images he was shown while on the witness stand during Durand's trial. And when state police investigator Frank D'Aurizio --- who, along with Wayne County DA Rick Healy, brought the charges against Durand and two others --- was confronted on the stand by a video still, he admitted he considered what was depicted to be neglect.

The video shows the corpses of hens (sometimes decaying), hens with injuries or with their heads stuck in the cage wires. The most stomach-turning shots come from below the cages in the manure pits, where the activists videotaped one hen nearly submerged in manure and another crawling with flies. (Wegmans says there's no way to confirm or deny whether most of the footage was shot at its facility.)

Partially lost in the shuffle was who was actually on trial.

"Wegmans is not on trial here," the DA told prospective jurors during jury selection. He repeated that line again at the beginning of his closing arguments in the trial. You might not have known it, though, from the courtroom proceedings, he said. (In a way, that's a backhanded compliment to his opponents, Len Egert and Amy Trakinski, Durand's lawyers.)
Wegmans, recognizing that the trial could become about them, strove mightily to keep that from happening. But the company was in a difficult position. In order to convict Durand, they had to admit that at least some of the video footage came from their facility.

A plea bargain (such as those offered to Cosgrove and a third activist, Melanie Ippolito) might have spared the company the painful spotlight of the trial. But Healy (who says he doesn't plea bargain burglaries without the consent of the victim) says Wegmans wasn't interested in letting Durand bargain.

As part of their public relations outreach, Wegmans offered media covering the trial, including City Newspaper, a tour of the Wolcott facility.

"We wanted to get the record straight," said Jeanne Colleluori. "We have nothing to hide. We felt the visuals shown in the courtroom were very slanted in a negative way."

Conditions in the facility appeared to be different from those in the "Wegmans Cruelty" film, but not drastically. The most obvious difference was that it was much cleaner. (Colleluori says the decision to offer the tour was made earlier that day, so no special preparations were made.) Manure piles were a foot or two high, rather than the four to six-feet-high mounds activists say they observed during their visit.

Media weren't allowed down the 400-foot-long corridors lined by cages, for fear of agitating the hens, so it's impossible to compare the situation with that in much of the activists' video.
After deliberating for just over an hour (and that includes time to eat their free lunch), the jury found Adam Durand not guilty of all three counts of felony burglary, as well as all three counts of petit larceny. They convicted him of criminal trespassing. Though he could still spend up to 9 months in jail if sentenced consecutively, that was clearly a victory for Durand.

"When this case was given to a jury, they found that Adam was guilty of less than Mel and I pled to," says Megan Cosgrove. (She and Ippolito pled guilty to both the trespassing and petit larceny counts.)

"They didn't find it a crime to rescue sick and dying animals." That's how Len Egert interpreted the verdict. Yet despite statements like that and the implications they portend, he and Trakinski say they weren't seeking a test case, and Durand wasn't looking to become a martyr for the animal-rights cause.

"We weren't pushing for a trial," he says. "We weren't trying to put Wegmans on trial."

Wegmans released a statement on the verdict that sidestepped that question altogether, saying, in part: "We are very glad this chapter in a nearly two-year saga has ended. We're pleased with the conviction on the trespassing charges, and although we're disappointed in the other decisions, we do respect the finding of the jury."

But the most telling reaction came from the farm manager Wadsworth, as he wound up his tour for the media.

"Actually it felt like I was the one on trial," he said.

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