If a judge has his way, 22-year-old Jeffrey Michael Luers will
spend the next 23 years of his life behind bars for a crime in which
no one was injured.
On June 16, 2000, three pickup trucks were destroyed in a fire
at Eugene's Romania Chevrolet dealership, causing $40,000 in damage.
Luers (known as "Free" in the forest activist community) and Craig
Andrew "Critter" Marshall were accused of arson. Marshall accepted
a plea bargain for a five-and-a-half year sentence; Luers went to
trial and was convicted, drawing a sentence that could imprison
him for longer than he has been alive. Lane County Deputy District
Attorney Kent Mortimore--who called Luers a "terrorist"--told local
media that "our philosophy is that people in this community have
a right to be safe, and have a right for their property to be safe."
But many observers see a deeper message for the radicals in Eugene
areas: If you're caught committing a crime, you'll get a far stiffer
sentence than other citizens. That's especially true if you're a self-declared
anarchist like Luers. But even many who shudder at property destruction
are aghast at a sentence that outpaces those routinely granted to
violent criminals (according to Justice Department figures, the average
sentence for rape is 67 months). "I think most people are disgusted
with the sentence, and most people understand that he's serving that
amount of time because he's an anarchist," says Shelley Cater, who
is organizing support for Luers and Marshall. Cater sees the sentence
as a message that "anarchism will not be tolerated in our city, and
this is the way it will be dealt with."
Jeffrey Micahel "Free"
On June 11, Circuit Court Judge Lyle Velure rendered a guilty verdict
for Luers on multiple charges--including arson, criminal mischief
and making and possessing a destructive device. Luers was alleged
to have made and set the incendiary devices discovered at Romania
Chevrolet, and to have attempted to set an empty gasoline tanker
ablaze at a local oil company on May 26 of that year (the firebomb
on the tanker, owned by Tyree Oil Co., did not ignite). Luers has
admitted the former act while staunchly denying the latter.
According to Luers, he set the fire at Romania Chevrolet out of
concern for the "irreversible damage" humans are inflicting on the
planet while taking "every precaution" that no one would be injured
in the fire. In a prepared statement read at his sentencing, Luers
wrote: "I didn't do this for anarchy or because I'm anti-government.
And I didn't do this because I enjoy property destruction. I don't.
I did this because I'm frustrated that we are doing irreversible
damage to our planet, our home."
For his part, Velure said he "never doubted" Luers' sincerity,
and promised that the defendant would be sentenced based "solely
on the severity of the crimes."
But Michael Dreiling, a sociology professor at the University of
Oregon who studies social movements, says he has "no doubt" that
there was an excessive sentence imposed because of Luers' political
beliefs. "I don't think your standard arsonist would receive this
type of sentencing," Dreiling says. "However, there are times for
certain tactics--and there are times when those tactics are likely
to fragment the left," reasoning that property destruction could
alienate moderates. Beyond tactics, though, friends and supporters
are thinking about the impact of the verdict on Luers and Marshall.
Activists in Eugene ran through a gamut of emotions when the sentence
was handed down, mostly shock. Cater compares it to getting a warning
that someone is going to punch you in the stomach: You know it's
coming, "but it still takes your breath away."
Attorney Brian Barnes, who represents Luers, says he plans to appeal
the sentence. Marshall could qualify for Oregon's boot camp alternative
sentencing program, which might allow him to be released in as few
as two years.
That hasn't stemmed public outcry, though. As a recent letter to
the Eugene Register-Guard noted, a drunk driver was found
responsible for the death of another motorist just weeks before
Luers' trial--and sentenced to less than half the jail time the
anarchist was. The writer called this "a profoundly discouraging
example of jurisprudence and our culture's priorities."