Scientology Critic Convicted
By Declan McCullagh 4:15 p.m. April 27, 2001 PDT WASHINGTON -- A California jury has convicted Keith Henson, a prominent critic of Scientology, of terrorizing the group through Usenet posts and by picketing one of its offices. Henson, a computer engineer who has been involved in prior legal skirmishes with Scientology, was found guilty on Thursday of interfering with Scientologists' civil rights and now faces a prison sentence of up to one year and a fine of up to $5,000. The charges revolved around posts Henson made in the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup about targeting a nuclear missile at Scientologists, and Henson's picketing of the group's Golden Era Productions in Riverside, California. The jury rejected Henson's claim that he was exercising his First Amendment right to criticize a dangerous cult, and convicted him of interfering with a religion, one of three counts against him. "It was not just the postings themselves," said Deputy District Attorney Robert Schwarz. "He had been engaged in other odd behavior -- chasing down buses, taking down license plate numbers." Schwarz, who prosecuted the case, said that Henson also followed people he knew to be Scientologists from their homes to Golden Era Studios: "He would hang over the fence and yell at them and do other weird behavior." Henson's supporters have created a website, freehenson.tripod.com, to rally support for Henson during his legal battle. The site says that Scientology has a suspiciously close relationship with the prosecutor: "What kind of Alice-in-Wonderland Court is it that allows organized criminals to sit in the prosecutor's chair bringing charges against the honest citizens, in which a heavily-armed cult has Mafia lawyers direct the activities of the District Attorney?" "A dodgy District Attorney, with cult lawyers sitting at the prosecutor's table, set him up for absurd charges of threatening the cult with cruise missiles," says Dave Bird, another Scientology critic. "Virtually all the defense evidence was excluded.... Even when Henson quoted L. Ron Hubbard's violent words, it was presented as his own speech without quotation marks." L. Ron Hubbard is the late science fiction author and founder of Scientology, which has been entangled for much of the last decade with Internet critics who delight in passing around the group's supposedly secret scriptures. Scientology successfully sued Henson for excerpting its scriptures, and even attacked The Washington Post for describing how the documents depict a galactic overlord named Xenu who is allegedly the source of all human evil. Henson seems undeterred. "After court today, my wife Arel and I picketed outside the court with signs about the women killed out at the cult's place last summer," he said in an e-mail. "We also gave away about 200 flyers about how Scientology is hurting people and breaking the law." Last week, Henson unsuccessfully asked the judge to dismiss the prosecutor's case because the government showed bias by not investigating the deaths of Ashlee Shaner and Stacy Meyer. Both women died at the Golden Era Productions location. Henson was convicted of violating a hate crimes statute, section 422.6 of the California Penal Code. It says: "No person, whether or not acting under color of law, shall by force or threat of force, willfully injure, intimidate, interfere with, oppress or threaten any other person in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege." Scientology welcomed the jury verdict. In a statement, the group said: "Justice has been served in the trial of People v. Keith Henson. Religious bigotry will not be tolerated in Riverside County." The jury was hung on the other two counts against Henson: 9-3 for conviction on the count of terrorism, 10-2 for conviction on the count of attempted terrorism.