A federal appeals court in San Francisco today overturned the arson conviction of an Oakland violin teacher in the eco-terrorist burning of a University of Washington building in Seattle in 2001.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Briana Waters, 34, was denied a fair trial when the trial judge allowed a witness to read to the jury anarchist articles allegedly linked to Waters.
A three-judge panel of the court said there was no proof Waters had even read the articles advocating violence and that the literature was inflammatory and “likely to have swayed jurors’ emotions.”
Waters, who had attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., was accused of participating in the arson of the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington on May 21, 2001. The fire caused $6 million in damage, the court said.
The Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group that mistakenly believed a professor at the center was engaged in genetic engineering of poplar trees, claimed responsibility for the fire.
Waters was accused of being one of five people who planned the blaze. Two other defendants who became government informants said she acted as a lookout while the other four set the fire.
Waters said she was innocent and was not a member of the Earth Liberation Front. She claimed the two women who testified against her held grudges against her.
She was convicted of two counts of arson in federal court in Tacoma, Wash., in 2008 and sentenced to six years in prison.
Federal prosecutors can now appeal further, hold a new trial or drop the case.
Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Seattle, said, “We’re reviewing the decision,” and said she could not comment further.
Dennis Riordan, a San Francisco attorney who represented Waters in the appeal, said he will ask the federal court in Tacoma for her immediate release from prison on bail while prosecutors decide their next step.
Waters is in a federal prison in Connecticut, Riordan said. She has a 5-year-old daughter and was a violin teacher in Oakland before she was convicted, he said.
The anarchist literature was contained in a folder that one of the prosecution witnesses said Waters had given to her.
The folder had Waters’ fingerprints on it, but none of the articles showed her fingerprints.
Waters said she had not put anarchist articles in the folder and had instead placed articles about women, activism and vegetarianism there.
Circuit Judge Wallace Tashima wrote, “The anarchist literature was highly prejudicial. It contained a number of inflammatory statements glorifying violence, advocating destruction and calling for an end to society.
“Rather than contributing to any issue in the case, it played to the jury’s emotions, encouraging it to convict because it believed Waters held loathsome views that threatened the jurors’ way of life.”
The panel said the trial judge, U.S. District Judge Franklin Burgess, failed in his judicial duty to review the articles before allowing them as evidence.
The court said Burgess made a second error when he refused to allow defense attorneys to show a documentary film Waters had made about a peaceful logging protest. Waters sought to use it as evidence of her claim that she was devoted to peaceful means of protest.
After being told of the anarchist literature, the jury “was prevented from viewing evidence that would paint a contrasting picture of Waters as a person,” the court said.