A panel of three Trump-appointed judges this week upheld an excessive eight-year prison sentence handed down to climate activist Jessica Reznicek, ruling that a terrorism enhancement attached to her sentence was “harmless.”
The terror enhancement, which dramatically increased Reznicek’s sentence from its original recommended range, set a troubling precedent. Decided by a lower court in 2021, it contends that Reznicek’s acts against private property were “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government.” The appellate justices’ decision to uphold her sentence, callously dismissing the challenge to her terrorism enhancement, doubles down on a chilling message: Those who take direct action against rapacious energy corporations can be treated as enemies of the state.
Reznicek, an Iowa-based member of the Catholic Worker Movement and a participant in the Indigenous-led climate struggle, engaged in acts of property damage in an attempt to stop the completion of the Dakota Access pipeline in 2016 and 2017. Along with fellow activist Ruby Montoya, Reznicek took credit for various acts of sabotage, which harmed no humans or animals but burnt a bulldozer and damaged valves of the pipeline. The damaged equipment was property not of the U.S. government, but of private pipeline and energy companies.
Following Reznicek’s guilty plea to a single charge of conspiracy to damage an energy facility — which brought a recommended sentencing range of 37 to 46 months — Judge Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger, in allegiance with prosecutors, added the terrorism enhancement. This increased her sentencing range to 210 to 240 months, making the eight-year sentence Reznicek ultimately received fit comfortably below the accepted range, though it’s more than double the previous recommendation. (Montoya, who also pleaded guilty, has filed a motion to withdraw her plea, claiming that it was coerced.)
Both courts’ decisions on Reznicek’s sentence reflect unsurprising but deeply troubling priorities in our criminal legal system. It would be unempirical to the point of foolishness to expect the courts, stacked as they are with right-wing justices, to side with individuals taking risks to stop environmental devastation rather than those corporations making millions on the back of it. Yet Reznicek’s appeal was on a point of law: Terrorism enhancements are only supposed to be applicable to crimes that target governmental conduct; Reznicek’s targets were private corporations.
The collapsing of government and corporate interests signified by Reznicek’s terrorism enhancement is worthy of profound challenge, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges did not even address the substance of the activist’s appeal. In a short, unsigned opinion, the court wrote that even if there had been an “error” in applying a terrorism enhancement, it was “harmless,” because Ebinger had stated on the record that she would have imposed an eight-year sentence with or without the terrorism enhancement.
It is a cynical move indeed to sidestep the chilling effect of labeling such acts as “terrorism,” as if it carries no material consequences for the future of water and Indigenous land protection and other social movements. As Reznicek’s support team wrote in a statement Monday, “Federal prosecutors only pursued terrorism enhancements against Reznicek after 84 Congressional representatives wrote a letter in 2017 to Attorney General Jeff Sessions requesting that Reznicek and other protesters who tamper with pipelines be prosecuted as domestic terrorists.” These members of Congress, note Reznicek’s supporters, have together received a combined $36 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry.
Determinations over which actions are labeled “terrorism” are always political.
Determinations over which actions are labeled “terrorism” are always political, and in this case nakedly so given the clear pressure applied on prosecutors by politicians and their industry backers. Ebinger’s claim — that she would have imposed the excessive eight-year sentence with or without the terror enhancement triggered — cannot be considered the final word here. Reporting on Reznicek’s case, ABC News — an outlet hardly aligned with the environmental left — noted that neither white supremacist murderer Dylann Roof nor avowed neo-Nazi James Fields, who plowed his car into anti-fascist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, received a terrorism enhancement when sentenced.
Reznicek’s legal team will continue to challenge her sentence in court, especially since the question of the misapplication of a terrorism enhancement remains open, despite the judges’ decision this week. A full court hearing by the 8th Circuit, an appeal to the far-right Supreme Court, or a request for clemency from President Joe Biden are all technical options, but hardly are any of these sites of optimism.
As her legal battles continue, Reznicek, whose acts of sabotage place her firmly on the right side of history, if not the law, deserves full-throated public support. As she noted in her 2017 statement claiming responsibility for the actions against the Dakota Access pipeline: “We acted from our hearts and never threatened human life nor personal property. What we did do was fight a private corporation that has run rampant across our country seizing land and polluting our nation’s water supply.”