Freedom of speech, self-defense, terrorism – and monkeys. The trial of Christian Minaya had many compelling story lines.
Miami jurors on Thursday convicted the animal-rights activist of attacking a van owned by Worldwide Primates — a controversial West Miami-Dade company that imports primates for biomedical research — during a spirited protest in October 2013.
Thursday’s trial was yet another legal skirmish between the aggressive protest group Smash HLS and Worldwide, which last year filed suit claiming it was targeted by a campaign to “intimidate, stalk and terrorize” employees.
Minaya, 34, an unemployed landscaper from Palm Beach County, was convicted of misdemeanor criminal mischief and disorderly conduct.
While the criminal charges were relatively minor, each side framed the incident in lofty terms. Prosecutors said rock-chucking protestors engaged in a “terrorist attack.”
“You have the right to say what you want in this country. It’s a right our forefathers fought for,” Miami-Dade prosecutor Justin Guido told jurors. “What you don’t have right to do is to terrorize people. You don’t have the right to destroy property whenever you want.”
Said defense lawyer Patrick Wilson: “The police was trying to incite, to escalate. They were trying to make arrests. They were trying to get rid of a nuisance. They were trying to suppress First Amendment speech.”
Jurors deliberated a little more than one hour. Minaya did not go to jail – Judge Dawn Denaro sentenced him to one year of probation and he must complete 100 hours of community service.
Minaya must also stay away from Worldwide and its employees.
“This verdict should send a clear message to all that the First Amendment allows peaceful protests. It does not allow the violent acts that were committed by the Smash protestors,” the company said in a statement.
Because monkeys and apes are so similar to humans, they have been used for research as far back as the 1950s, when primates played a crucial role in developing a vaccine for polio.
Worldwide is one of only two Florida facilities licensed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for use as a “quarantine facility” for primates used in biomedical research. The CDC requires all monkeys be quarantined for 30 days before they are shipped to laboratories.
But animal-rights groups — saying primates are subjected to agonizing and inhumane medical tests — have long mounted aggressive campaigns against the facilities. Some have gone to prison for illegal threats and over-the-top protests.
In the case of Smash HLS, the group often protested outside Worldwide’s West Miami-Dade facility and homes of employees, insisting they were law abiding events. Company workers’ identities, photos, home addresses and even divorce records were plastered online, while one veterinarian reported hundreds of harassing phone calls.
The company’s lawsuit seeking a permanent restraining order was recently dropped, though lawyers can refile if they believe protests resume getting out of hand.
The October 2013 protest outside their facility became a major focus in the lawsuit against Smash HLS members.
Nine people were arrested that day. All but Minaya accepted “pretrial” diversion programs for first-time offenders; their charges were dropped in exchange for fines and community service.
That day, a company van – with an undercover Miami-Dade detective in the passenger seat – slowly left the facility as a couple dozen protestors waved signs and chanted outside. Police video captured the encounter. As though it were the Zapruder film, lawyers on Thursday played the footage back and forth, analyzing frame after frame. The van veered somewhat left, then right. Minaya got in front of the vehicle.
Protestors began banging on the van. One protestor got atop the hood. Minaya claimed he began banging on the window to get the attention of the driver.
“I was scared. There is this vehicle coming at me,” Minaya testified on Thursday. “I couldn’t understand why they were driving into a crowd of people.”
The van’s passenger, undercover Miami-Dade Detective Shad Mezghet, was “laughing and smiling,” Minaya claimed.
In the slow-moving ruckus, Minaya grabbed the passenger-side mirror – which broke off. He hurled it at the van, the footage showed. “I threw it out of frustration,” he admitted. Minaya even chased the van. He insisted it was out of concern for “my friend Todd” stuck on the hood.