Editorial Note: This post will be updated during trial proceedings and also will be updated as more information becomes available.
In 2017, five members of Direct Action Everywhere (Dxe) — including DxE Founder Wayne Hsiung — infiltrated the massive Circle Four Farm in Beaver County, Utah — which is owned by Smithfield Foods— and reportedly and nonviolently removed two piglets that DxE said were severely injured, malnourished, and on the brink of death. Smithfield kills more pigs than any other company in the world — nearly 30 million each year.
Hsiung and DxE Activist Paul Darwin Picklesimer now are undergoing trial at the 5th District Court in Washington County, Utah, on multiple felony counts of burglary and theft, with the trial originally scheduled through Oct. 7.
Here’s what we know.
Oct. 8 – VERDICT
After more than five hours of deliberation, the jury returned to declare both Hsiung and Picklesimer NOT GUILTY on all counts by a unanimous vote! We are overjoyed that the jury recognized that the reportedly immediately life-threatening circumstances for these piglets made their removal a rescue — and not an act of theft or burglary.
Oct. 7 – Day 4
Hsiung called to the stand Andrew Sharo, a member of the DxE investigatory team who went to Circle Four Farms in 2017, who said that he was proud of rescuing the sick piglets. Sharo attempted to explain his role in the investigation was to document cruelty; the State objected when the topic of animal cruelty surfaced. Sharo said that the piglets went to a veterinarian who was concerned they wouldn’t survive because there had been dead piglets observed at Smithfield. The State objected to the reference of the dead piglets. Sharo then attempted to describe the conditions in which the two piglets were found — Lily with a swollen foot and Lizzie with blood and scabs on her face as she tried to nurse from a bloody teat — which he said was “gruesome,” and the State objected to the reference to the conditions.
On cross, the State questioned Sharo as to why DxE did not contact Smithfield prior to their investigation. Sharo responded that the point of an investigation is to document conditions as they are and that announcing an inspection would allow a facility to change the conditions. The State asked why DxE did not immediately contact or report Smithfield after noting their concerns at what they witnessed at Circle Four; he said that Smithfield, as a billion dollar corporation, likely would not have cared or responded to stated concerns from the group. Sharo also said that DxE had obtained significant footage they had to sort through and to ensure any information they presented in reporting the conditions was accurate and that the investigation process takes time.
The State asked whether the piglets were ever returned to Circle Four Farms. Sharo said that returning the piglets to Circle Four, when they required medical care, would have been “cruel.” A juror asked why DxE did not take the piglets on the night of March 6, when they reportedly documented conditions, but rather on March 7; Sharo said that the team was “exhausted” and that also rescuing and caring for the piglets that same night would “not have been feasible.”
Hsiung next called Hadar Aviram, a member of the California Bar and a professor of law at UC Hastings, as a character witness. Aviram explained she had met Hsiung through a law colleague and that they had worked on legislative advocacy together, including introducing a ban on selling fur in San Francisco that later expanded to the rest of the state as well as a food labeling initiative. Aviram described Hsiung as “very honest, trustworthy, and courageous.”
Rick Pitman, the owner of a turkey farm formerly investigated by DxE, also said that he was “very impressed” with Hsiung’s willingness to talk about conditions for animals and “very kind” in what he said was “pushing his values.” Pitman said he met both Hsiung and Picklesimer when DxE showed up outside his farm with dozens of peaceful protestors and also that he chose to “pardon” 100 of his turkeys following interactions with the group. Pitman said that his interactions with Hsiung had ended up “very well” for taking care of his animals better.
The State asked Pitman if he had ever sustained damage to his property, and Pitman said that a turkey he owned at a neighboring turkey farm had been taken by DxE. He added, “There’s a difference between stealing a turkey and causing economic damage and rescuing a turkey that’s suffering.” When asked what had happened to the “pardoned” turkeys, Pitman said he was very impressed because they had gone to animal sanctuaries across the country, that he had visited some of the turkeys recently, and they were still alive.
The State then called Utah State Veterinarian Dean Taylor to comment on Rosenburg’s testimony from the day previously. Taylor said that diagnosing an animal based on reviewing a video could lead to a misdiagnosis but then explained his professional take on the same video that Rosenburg had viewed for the trial; he said he had not talked with the caretakers who had treated the piglets and also had not seen the piglets in person.
Taylor said he believed Rosenburg’s claims were “exaggerated” and that in his professional opinion what Rosenburg had described as “lacerations” on the face of the piglet nursing from the mother pig’s bloody teat may actually have been serum scald, which he described as irritation caused from blood that can burn the face if left without treatment. Taylor estimated the cost for each piglet — for an exam, an X-ray, and antibiotics, if administered — would have been less than $100 each.
Corporon, Picklesimer’s attorney, on cross established that Taylor was not aware that the piglets had been seen by an in-person, emergency vet twice following their rescue, who prescribed them antibiotics for their condition, and that both piglets would have required human intervention to survive.
Jurors asked about Taylor’s hands-on experience with pigs, and he said that he had been an attending vet at a Utah hog farm for three years and also that he treated potbelly pigs in other settings. He estimated that he provided exams or treatments “30 to 50 times” within that three years and that the majority of those visits were to a commercial farm.
The State then called Richard Topham, a worker at Circle Four Farms, who testified that cameras were not allowed at the Smithfield Site per a company policy. Hsiung attempted to clarify that in the state of Utah employees can be held criminally liable for recording, per an ag-gag law that Topham said he was not aware of. The State then asked if Smithfield provides medical care to the animals. Topham said that they did and “that’s the job, healthy animals.”
Hsiung then objected, asking the judge why the State was allowed to talk about what he called “positive” welfare, whereas he was not allowed to establish conditions of negative welfare. The judge told the State to redirect its questions.
Hsiung on cross examination established that in 2017, according to Topham, Smithfield employed two veterinarians for at least 1.2 million pigs, which he said would equate to 600,000 pigs to be examined by vet per year or 1,600 pigs per vet per day. Topham said that the veterinarians had trained workers to observe the pigs.
The judge asked if the jury had any questions and collected numerous questions. After silently reviewing the questions, the judge told the jury they could take their lunch break. He then told the attorneys that the questions were about animal welfare. Judge Jeffrey Wilcox then asked what the three parties thought of suspending that practice and not answering the questions relevant to welfare, since allowing the jury to ask questions was at his discretion.
The State, via Christiansen, said that not answering the questions from the jury about welfare would allow the State to rest its case and move forward with the trial ending, as originally planned.
Corporon, Picklesimer’s attorney, said that the court had invited the jurors to ask questions and that the jurors had been getting their questions answered for the entirety of the trial. She added that the State had opened the door to the animal welfare issues at Smithfield and provided a “false narrative” that the animals were healthy, along with an inference that the piglets would have been noticed, treated with antibiotics and bathed and healed and be ready to be sold to market, and that she had a right to rebut with evidence of conditions at the facility.
The judge then asked how she would feel about him simply directing the jury to disregard what they had heard, to which she replied that given the number of questions the jurors had subsequently asked about animal welfare, the issue now was “front and center” in their minds, and that while court could direct them to disregard what they had heard, that the false narrative about animal welfare was still clearly in their minds, as evidenced by the number of questions they had asked.
“My client is facing very serious criminal charges that could put him in prison and label him a felon for the rest of his life,” she said. “The inference has been raised these pigs would have been taken care of by Smithfield, and we have the right to negate that… He should be able to provide rebuttal that the animals are not safe and healthy at this farm.”
Beyond the welfare issues the court objected to hearing, Corporon said that the State had tried to establish that the ill and injured piglets could have had “value” to Smithfield, and that she was pressing the matter of presenting evidence to equally show the jury that given the conditions, the piglets likely would not have actually had market value to the company.
Hsiung said he had no problems with answering the jury’s questions and also was prepared to provide evidence of the conditions for animals that he had previously submitted to the court for consideration. “We need to be able to present evidence, rebut and cross examine their (the State’s) witnesses,” he said.
The judge then said that he was not going to hear any more testimony but that he would be okay with declaring a mistrial — meaning the entire case would have to be argued again, at a different date, in front of a different jury.
After a recess for the parties to consider, Corporon told the judge that Picklesimer’s first choice was to rebut what the jury had heard, present evidence about conditions for the animals at Circle Four, and said she could finish up doing that by Saturday morning — but given her understanding the Court would deny that request, she said Picklesimer would prefer to exercise his right for a speedy trial and proceed with the trial, rather than the judge declaring a mistrial, on the conditions that the jury be instructed to disregard the testimony from the State’s witnesses presented that morning in its entirety. Corporon asked that the questions submitted by the jurors become part of the written record for the trial.
She also asked that a burglary charge regarding March 6, when DxE reportedly went into a gestation barn, be dismissed, given that no piglets could have been removed from that piece of property since the piglets would still have been inside their mothers and given that the State had presented “not a scintilla of evidence that anything had been taken.”
Wilcox, the judge, agreed to dismiss the March 6 burglary charges against both Picklesimer and Hsiung – leaving one felony and one misdemeanor charge remaining — but said that he would deny any requests to continue the trial longer than it had been scheduled, and when the jury returned, instructed them to disregard everything they had heard from Taylor and Topham that morning.
During closing arguments Christiansen said the State had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that both Hsiung and Picklesimer had entered the Circle Four Farm with intent to take pigs, that their delay of removing piglets until March 7 indicated there was no medical emergency, and that Smithfield allegedly “valued” the piglets because the piglets had tags in their ears and were still alive at the time of their rescue. He said that Rosenburg’s testimony as a veterinarian was not credible because she has dedicated her life to having a sanctuary that helps rescued and injured animals. He also said that Picklesimer should be considered guilty of burglary and theft because even though he had not taken a piglet out himself he was physically present with DxE during the rescue.
Corporon, Picklesimer’s attorney, told jurors that the State had grossly overcharged her client and that they could only find her client guilty if they were sure — without a shadow of a reasonable doubt — that he had gone into facility with intent to personally remove something of value. She said that in this country individuals are not convicted for the actions of a “team.” She noted that Picklesimer’s stated role in the rescue was to be the videographer and that he was carrying heavy, expensive camera equipment that would not have allowed him also to carry a “squirming piglet.” She said that evidence presented in court showed that Picklesimer had never taken nor even touched a piglet and so could not be proven guilty of theft or burglary. Beyond not proving that Picklesimer had entered the property with the intent of taking something of value, Corporon also said that the State had not proven that the piglets actually had any value to Smithfield. She noted the $42.20 market value quoted by the Utah State Veterinarian referred to a healthy and weaned piglet — which Lizzie and Lily reportedly were not — and that the piglets more likely would have fallen into the reported 15 percent of piglets who die, given their various medical conditions and their low body weights. She told jurors that Smithfield “Would not want to be selling sick piglets into the market” and that as such, Lily and Lizzie, at the time of their rescue, actually reportedly had a “negative value” for the company.
Corporon also took issue with the State’s statements that Rosenburg, as a rescue operator, was a biased veterinarian and reminded the jury that the State’s veterinary witness worked for and was paid by the State of Utah, which also is prosecuting the case.
Hsiung, in his closing arguments, reiterated that DxE had gone to the Circle Four Farms to document conditions. He said that at no point in the trial had either party asserted that DxE went into the buildings with the intent to take something of “value” to Smithfield. He said that DxE, since its inception, has only removed animals that they believed were in need of medical care and on the brink of death. He repeated statements made during the rescue video regarding the piglet: “Her face is covered in blood. She’s on the ground. She’s not going to make it.”
“We only take animals in need of medical care,” he told jurors. “When we take an animal out, it is an act of mercy, because they need help… One of the things we’ve been consistent about is that we never intended to take something of value to Smithfield.”
Echoing Corporon, Hsiung said that the State had not proven beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt that DxE had intended to take something of value or that the rescued piglets actually had value, citing Rosenburg’s testimony that body weight is the No. 1 factor in mortality and that both Lizzie and Lily were one-quarter to one-third the size of their siblings. He also asked jurors how much Smithfield “valued” the piglets if they had not realized they were missing until a month later, when the New York Times reported on Operation Deathstar. Hsiung also repeated that Picklesimer’s role was to be a videographer.
Hsiung closed by telling the jurors not to return a verdict on a legal technicality but to make the choice from conscience, as their verdicts could lead to a more compassionate and a kinder world where an infant pig like Lily would not have to die on a factory floor.
“The animals of this earth have given us so much,” he said. “All they’ve asked for in return is that we be good stewards of their care. If you defend our right to give aid to dying animals, defend the right of all citizens to aid dying and sick and injured animals, there are some things that will happen in this world. Companies will be a little more compassionate to the creatures under their stewardship. Governments will be a little more open to animal cruelty complaints. And maybe, just maybe, a baby pig like Lily won’t have to starve to death on the floor of a factory farm.”
Christiansen, in his final statements, noted that the piglets combined had a “value” of less than $500 and asked jurors to consider the way the term “rescue” was being used, comparing DxE’s removals of the bloody and injured piglets to a dented can on a grocery store shelf that someone couldn’t just take because it was dented.
Jurors voted to deliberate and declare their verdict in the morning. The remaining burglary count is a third-degree felony, carrying a possible sentence of zero to five years in prison and fines. The theft count is a class B misdemeanor, with possible penalties of up to six months in jail and fines.
Oct. 6 – Day 3
The judge directed the parties not to bring discussions of animal cruelty before the jury.
Hsiung in his opening statements said that the case is not actually about theft or burglary, but about rescue. He attempted to describe DxE’s mission as “going into dark places where animals are being cruelly treated,” but was halted by an objection from the State for mentioning animal cruelty. Hsiung then attempted to describe the illness and injury of the two pigs DxE rescued but was not allowed to do so, following another objection from the State that the judge sustained. Hsiung then said that the point of the investigation — known as Operation Deathstar — was to document conditions. “We did not have a purpose to take anything of value,” he said.
Justin Marceu, a professor, testified as a character witness for Hsiung and described him as “selfless and compassionate.”
Veterinarian Sherstin Rosenburg, of the Happy Hen Animal Sanctuary, was called as a witness for DxE and said she had created the medical plan for the piglets following their rescue. Rosenburg said in her professional opinion the injured and ill piglets likely had zero market value for Smithfield and may actually have been a liability. She reported both piglets had low body weight and severe diarrhea, while Lily also had a severe foot injury, and said they likely would have had a survival rate of less than 5 percent. Rosenburg said the piglets “absolutely required special care.”
Rosenburg estimated that the care plan to bring Lily back to health from diarrhea, malnourishment, and her foot infection would cost at least $445, including an X-ray. She estimated rehabilitating Lizzie would cost at least $300. She also contested previous statements that the piglets would have been worth $42.20, which she said the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited as the market value for weaned pigs that weigh 10 to 12 pounds — and Lizzie and Lily were much smaller and also ill and injured.
Hsiung attempted to introduce a still photo of Lizzie, showing her face covered in blood while attempting to nurse, and the State objected, saying the image would be “prejudicial” to the jury.
Christiansen on cross examination asked whether Rosenburg had made her analysis of the piglets’ health after observing a video recording of them. She said she had. Christiansen asked if “value” can be a subjective term, and Rosenburg said that the market value for animals is set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Christiansen asked Rosenburg if animals at her sanctuary whom she did not think would survive ended up surviving. She said they did. He then asked whether the piglets if left at Smithfield could have survived. Rosenburg said it was possible but not likely.
Christiansen then asked about the approach to activism of Rosenburg’s daughter, including chaining herself during an unrelated protest. Hsiung, following the cross examination, asked Rosenburg to clarify that she was a different person from her daughter and that her daughter’s actions don’t always reflect her own stances, both of which she said were true, and that her daughter’s actions would have no bearing on her professional perspective as a veterinarian about the health of an animal.
On Twitter, in a message for Lily, Hsiung posted, “While I am honored to have the opportunity to speak for animals, I am very very tired. But I just have to remember where she was when we found her and where she is today. And it’s so obvious to me that everything I’m going through — everything WE go through to speak for them — is worth it 10,000 times over.”
Oct. 5 – Day 2
The prosecution called on the FBI to testify against DxE and said that a “significant amount” of resources went into finding the piglets. Hsiung, representing himself, asked why at least eight FBI agents were involved with finding two piglets whose reported market value was less than $100. He asked FBI Agent Chris Anderson to recall any other cases of theft of less than $100 value in which multiple agents were involved, and Anderson said he could not recall any cases.
Oct. 4 – Day 1
Jury selection continued, followed by opening arguments for the State from Christiansen and Picklesimer’s attorney Mary Corporon. Christiansen said the piglets’ rescue amounted to “good old fashioned livestock rustling case with a modern twist” and asked that the rescue video be suppressed. Judge Jeffrey Wilcox agreed, saying the footage could cause an “emotional response” from the jury. The Utah State Veterinarian stated the market value of each piglet would have been $42.20. In addition to the state veterinarian, the prosecution questioned two Smithfield employees, one of whom said piglets are not provided care at night.
Oct. 3 – Jury Selection
Jury selection — which was not publicly viewable —ultimately took over 12 hours, with Hsiung, who is representing himself, noting that he was not given equal access to information about the potential jurors as was given to State prosecutors. Judge Jeffrey Wilcox admits he made a “mistake” but rules for proceedings to continue, according to news reports.
Prior to entering the court room, Hsiung said via a video posted to Twitter: “We have not received the complete set of jury questionnaires, and I don’t know how we can move forward with jury selection without getting the information we are constitutionally entitled to, but on the other hand stranger things have already happened in this case.”
Hsiung is representing himself. Mary Corporon is representing Darwin Picklesimer. The State is represented by Beaver County Attorney Von Christiansen and Janise Macanas.