A 115-year-old U.S. law that’s grown like kudzu now hangs over the head of the Minnesota dentist who shot Cecil the lion.
But it’s one of the Supreme Court’s newest decisions that could shape how officials may handle angry members of the public who have raged against the bow-and-arrow wielding dentist, Dr. Walter J. Palmer.
Now both hunter and hunted, Palmer has ventured into a legal thicket that’s almost certainly darker than he ever could have imagined. It’s also getting thicker by the day, as lawmakers take aim on their own.
“Let’s not be cowardly lions when it comes to trophy killings,” Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said Friday as he introduced legislation inspired by Cecil’s death.
Menendez dubbed his new bill the Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large (CECIL) Animal Trophies Act. Menendez, who is facing trial on corruption charges, was the first member of Congress to thrust himself into the Cecil story line.
Late yesterday we were voluntarily contacted by a rep of Dr. Palmer. We appreciate the cooperation, investigation is ongoing.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Menendez’s bill, even if it becomes law, won’t directly affect Palmer. Other laws, both foreign and domestic, might.
Investigators in both Zimbabwe and the United States want to talk to Palmer in connection with the shooting of Cecil in early July. Reportedly, Palmer and his guides lured Cecil from the protected confines of Hwange National Park. First shot by an arrow, Cecil was later tracked, finished off with a rifle and beheaded.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are taking the lead in the United States, guided by a law first passed in 1900 commonly called the Lacey Act. On Friday afternoon, officials revealed via Twitter that they had been “voluntarily” contacted late Thursday “by a rep” of Palmer.
“That investigation will take us wherever the facts lead,” Edward Grace, the agency’s deputy chief of law enforcement, said Thursday.
Named for an Iowa congressman and staunch conservationist, John F. Lacey, the much-amended law now spans some 11 pages of the U.S. Code and covers much more territory than originally envisioned.
Briefly, the Lacey Act makes it “unlawful to import, export, sell, acquire, or purchase” wildlife taken in violation of U.S., state or foreign laws. A felony conviction can result in a fine of up to $250,000 and a prison sentence of up to five years.
“When the Lacey Act was first passed, it was essentially designed to deal with interstate poaching,” Paul Larkin, a senior legal research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, noted in an interview Friday. “It was only over time that Congress began to add in violations of a foreign law.”
The three main threats facing African lions at this time are habitat loss, loss of prey base, and increased human-lion conflict.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The prosecutorial emphasis is often on explicitly commercial operations.
On July 21, for instance, Los Angeles businessman Kam Wing Chan pleaded guilty to Lacey Act charges related to smuggling endangered abalone and the bladders of Totoaba fish. A week earlier, three Colorado men pleaded guilty to Lacey Act charges relating to trafficking in Missouri paddlefish caviar.
Punishment can be stiff.
In February, a 43-year-old Maryland man was sentenced to 18 months in prison and ordered to pay a $40,000 fine and restitution of $498,293 for Lacey Act violations relating to the illegal harvesting of striped bass. Florida resident Abner Schoenwetter spent six-plus years in prison for agreeing to purchase lobster tails that violated harvest regulations in Honduras.
Palmer said in a statement issued Tuesday that he relied on professional guides and believed all the necessary permits were in hand.
Page Pate, an Atlanta-based defense attorney who has handled Lacey Act cases, noted in an interview Friday that though the law is pinned to importation or trafficking, prosecutors could conceivably argue that it also covers “conduct that you think is going to happen,” such as conceiving a plan to ship an animal trophy.
“It would not be an easy case to make,” Pate said.
Even so, Pate suggested, a targeted U.S. citizen in Palmer’s position might “want to be prosecuted in the United States” rather than face trial in a foreign country.
A separate law, called the Travel Act, makes it a crime to travel abroad to carry on “any unlawful activity.” Conceivably, this could be used, for instance, against a hunter who bribed a foreign guide to secure access to wildlife. Conviction can result in a prison sentence of up to five years.
Zimbabwe’s environment minister, Oppah Muchinguri, said at a news conference Friday that her government is requesting the 55-year-old Palmer’s extradition from the United States on poaching and other charges.
“We are appealing to the responsible authorities for his extradition to Zimbabwe so he may be held accountable for his illegal actions,” Muchinguri said.
On Wednesday, a Zimbabwe court charged a local hunter with failing to stop Palmer from killing Cecil.
The United States and Zimbabwe have been joined by an extradition treaty since 2000. While a U.S. federal judge decides whether a U.S. resident meets the legal criteria for extradition, the final extradition decision is up to the secretary of state.
A different legal question arises from the furious reactions to Palmer’s killing of Cecil. Online postings collected by the Buzzfeed news site included a number that sounded like threats.
One man, for instance, declared that “I’d put a cross bow bolt through Walter Palmer then track him from 40 hrs, shoot him, behead him, skin him and sleep peacefully.”
It sounds horrific. But under a Supreme Court decision issued last June, in a case arising out of graphic Facebook postings, conviction on a charge of making a threatening communication requires that the defendant actively intends a threat or knows his or her words will be seen as threatening.
Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.