On June 2, 2010, Dane County Judge Amy Smith agreed with the national animal rights group PETA and local Alliance for Animals that UW-Madison researchers may merit civil and even criminal penalties for conducting sometimes fatal decompression experiments on sheep. She tapped Madison attorney David Geier to see what charges were warranted.
Since then, it's anyone's guess what Geier has done. Smith declines comment. Geier did not respond to phone messages. His contacts with case principals have been nominal. And the State Prosecutor's Office says Geier "has not submitted any bills yet for that appointment."
Meantime, the three-year statute of limitations has run out on two sheep deaths for which charges could have been brought. The last day charges can be filed on the two remaining sheep deaths is June 17, 2011.
"We have significant concerns," says Rick Bogle, co-director of the Alliance. "I suspect he discounts the importance of the case because it deals only with animals, and only with sheep. But I don't really know."
Attorney Andrea Farrell, who brought the petition, has arranged a meeting with Geier this week: "I have no reason to believe Mr. Geier has not been diligent in his investigation of these crimes, but...the impending statute of limitations does concern me."
The petition seeking a special prosecutor was filed last March after then-Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard agreed the Navy-funded experiments broke a state law against killing animals through decompression but decided not to prosecute. He said these experiments, meant to help deep-sea divers avoid or survive the "bends," had killed more than two dozen sheep.
Smith, in her decision, said her appointment of a special prosecutor "permits, but does not compel, complaints to issue" against nine UW named officials and researchers. Whether anything happens is up to Geier.
PETA and others have continued to gather material, including emails showing that UW lawyers last summer helped the Navy draft a letter in support of the experiments. The UW's lawyer urged the Navy to remove the word "decompression" from this letter "because one possible defense is that this word in the statute is ambiguous as applied to what happened to the sheep." The Navy complied.
Eric Sandgren, director of the UW-Madison's Research Animal Resources Center and a named potential defendant, says the change was made because the UW believes the term "decompression" in the statute means something different than what is done in the experiments, since discontinued.
PETA has also obtained an explosive affidavit signed this January by Richard "Jim" Brown, a former UW veterinarian who, as Isthmus reported, quit suddenly last December. This affidavit, which Brown says was drafted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of its ongoing probe of the UW's animal record, alleges that it "seemed to be common knowledge in the Veterinary School, as far back as the early 1990s, that these decompression studies were being conducted in violation of Wisconsin law."
Sandgren strongly dissents, plausibly contending he's "never heard anything to support that." He also rejects Brown's claim that UW scientists persisted in giving sheep pure oxygen, knowing it caused "further unnecessary suffering" and did nothing to relieve the bends, "merely to continue getting Navy funding."
The truth, says Sandgren, is that UW researchers found pure oxygen was effective at lower pressures, and only later determined that it did not seem to help at higher ones. "I believe that when they figured that out, that's when they stopped doing it."