Civil disobedience and peaceful protest were on the minds of everyone in Judge David Nuffer’s courtroom today. The convicted San Juan County Commissioner, Phil Lyman, even brought it up himself. He had been convicted by a jury of his peers in US Court for the District of Utah for one count of conspiracy and one count of misdemeanor trespass stemming from an ATV protest ride up Recapture Canyon during the summer of 2014. Now it was up to Lyman, and co-conspirator Monte Wells, both of Blanding, Utah, to face the music.
The courtroom was filled with close to eighty of Lyman’s friends, family, and even some public figures who have tracked the case for weeks. At one point, Representative Mike Noel, (Republican – Kanab) had even petitioned the Utah Legislature for substantial monies from public coffers to come to Lyman’s legal aid. Noel was present in the courtroom today, along with Mike Mower, an aid to both Governors Herbert and Huntsman. The difference between Judge Nuffer’s courtroom and that of Dee Benson who sentenced Tim DeChristopher in July 2011, was the overall mood. While Lyman’s supporters were even smiling on occasion with the prospect of their husband, father and fellow commissioner losing his beloved freedom, during the DeChristopher penalty phase, the crowd was far more serious, prompting one female to rise and shout that “THIS COURT IS BROKEN!,” after Benson ordered remand and a 2 year prison term for DeChristopher.
That didn’t happen in Nuffer’s court.
Head prosecutor Jared Bennett made his remarks brief and to the point, emphasizing that pre-sentencing documents, letters, and written submissions on Lyman’s behalf were beside the point of Lyman’s conviction and that a suitable deterrent was necessary to avoid similar protests. Noting a “groundswell of support” in rural Utah of anti-federal government sentiment, Bennett said that many of Lyman’s friends were in opposition to policies and closures imposed by the Bureau of Land Management. Lyman and others mounted a mechanized protest that day to demonstrate their frustration with the federal government. Nuffer agreed and referred more than once to the sentencing guidelines he was obligated to follow.
When it was defense counsel Peter Stirba’s turn at the lecturn to address the court, he passionately described Lyman as a respected and respectful man who was found guilty of only a misdemeanor. “A misdemeanor, for God’s sake.” Even so, while Nuffer listened patiently and then invited Lyman to speak on his own behalf (and telling Lyman he wasn’t obligated to address the court). Nuffer told Lyman to “take as much time as you need, we’re in no hurry here.” At one point in his effort, Lyman struggled with his composure. He had previously said that for his entire life he had a clean record
Nuffer soon pronounced a 10-day jail sentence with a 3 year probation, along with additional fines and penalties. There was discussion between the judge and attorneys on each point, including the fact that since Utah doesn’t have a federal prison, the defendants will have to serve at a “contracted facility,” likely the Washington County Jail in St. George. Again, a departure from DeChristopher’s fate when he went to Colorado to serve 2 years from his Utah conviction for disrupting a federally authorized land auction. No one expected a similar sentence for Lyman’s crime.
Monte Wells, seated behind Lyman with his own attorney, Nathan Crane, was originally informed by Nuffer that his sentence would be 5 years, before Nuffer quickly clarified that he meant 5 days. When a reporter asked Wells about how he felt immediately preceding the clarification and Nuffer’s apology, Wells said that he thought it was “Just my luck.” He added that he was glad to have the ordeal over with. Crane indicated to reporters gathered outside the courthouse that they would contemplate an appeal after the holidays but that no decision on a possible appeal had been made. As Lyman exited the federal building to a waiting media scrum, Stirba would not allow any comment, saying only that the Commissioner was grateful that the judge had made a quick decision.
Nuffer told his court that he had lived in Washington County for several decades prior to being appointed to the federal bench and that his service there involved federal lands and the management of the same. “[St. George and outlying areas] we’re surrounded by federal lands that are maintained in the federal interest,” he said. Nuffer allowed himself a brief bit of editorializing when he told the court that he hoped that everyone would stop “emulating people on television and national politicians,” he also decried some of the letters he had received relative to the case, noting “an alarming amount of ignorance on the law and process.” Reporters close-by confirmed this concern among some of Lyman’s supporters. Mark Whitney, commissioner from Millard County told several of those assembled that Phil Lyman would not be issuing any statements because Lyman was under a gag order and that Whitney only wanted to get Lyman to his car and on his way home to Blanding.