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Grad student cites protecting subjects as reason not to testify

BY REGINA ZILBERMINTS | DECEMBER 09, 2009 7:30 AM

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A Minneapolis man arrested in connection with the 2004 UI Spence Labs/Seashore Hall break-in said he refused to testify before a grand jury to maintain his integrity as a sociologist,and that he was charged because of his activism and research.

Scott DeMuth, 22, was charged with conspiring to commit animal-enterprise terrorism and causing economic damage to the animal enterprise in November. The charge came after he refused to testify before a grand jury in Davenport.

“I went to Davenport on Nov. 17 knowing I could be jailed for contempt of court but willing to deal with whatever legal consequences came with my decision,” DeMuth told The Daily Iowan in an e-mail.

DeMuth said prosecutors didn’t pursue criminal charges until after he refused to speak.

“If the prosecution really considered me a suspect in the University of Iowa investigation, then it does not make sense why they would subpoena and grant me immunity and not pursue criminal charges originally,” he said.

Officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office didn’t return calls seeking comment.

DeMuth’s federal indictment didn’t specifically mention the Spence/Seashore break-in, in which four masked individuals caused about $450,000 in damages. But the dates, location, and nature of the charge matched the incident.

Grand-jury proceedings are sealed, and DeMuth said he isn’t entirely sure why he was subpoenaed. But he believes his work supporting animal rights and environmental movements, as well as his sociological research into these groups is why prosecutors are so eager to have him testify.

As a graduate student in sociology at the University of Minnesota, DeMuth has interviewed people involved in activism and those conversations are protected by confidentiality agreements — upholding this confidentiality is the reason he didn’t testify, he said.

A sociologist who testifies before a grand jury would likely lose all credibility in her or his field, said Lisa Waldner, a professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., where DeMuth conducted research as an undergraduate student.

“If he wants to go in front of a grand jury and spill his guts, it would create a huge problem,” she said. “He could never again do research as a sociologist.”

Sociologists often speak to people who break the law, and that research is integral to helping the public understand how certain groups work. In the process of those interviews, it’s not unusual for a researcher to offer her or his subjects promises of confidentiality, said Christopher Uggen, the chairman of sociology at the University of Minnesota.

Confidentiality protects the research subject from harm and helps the researcher by allowing people to be more comfortable answering questions, said UI sociology Assistant Professor Michael Sauder.

DeMuth is supported by his professors at the University of Minnesota, one of whom has started an online petition urging prosecutors to drop charges.

DeMuth said prosecutors showed no evidence proving he was present during the Spence/Seashore incident. Authorities contended that DeMuth was linked to the break-in after a journal and lock-picking device were seized from his home in 2008.

DeMuth has pleaded not guilty to charges; he was released from jail Nov. 30 pending trial.

A fellow activist, Carrie Feldman, remained jailed as of Tuesday evening on a charge of contempt of court.


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