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Loganville farmer Vernon Hershberger came to a forum last week in Rock Springs during which several of the jurors in his case applauded him and said that several people who served on the jury would like to join his farm’s buyer’s club.

Loganville farmer Vernon Hershberger came to a forum last week in Rock Springs during which several of the jurors in his case applauded him and said that several people who served on the jury would like to join his farm’s buyer’s club. Photo By Jan Shepel

Jurors speak out in Hershberger case

July 3, 2013 | 0 comments

 

Michele Hopp, left, and Kelly Winecke, two jurors in the Vernon Hershberger "raw milk" trial that recently concluded in Sauk County, said last week that if they had more information they likely would have found the farmer not guilty on all counts.

(Photo by Jan Shepel)

 

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Loganville farmer Vernon Hershberger came to a forum last week in Rock Springs during which several of the jurors in his case applauded him and said that several people who served on the jury would like to join his farm’s buyer’s club.

 

ROCK SPRINGS

Sometimes when a court case is over, jurors prefer not to speak about their experience and their feelings about the verdict they delivered.

That isn’t true with several of the citizens who served on the Vernon Hershberger "raw milk" case in Sauk County Court.

Two of the women who found Hershberger not guilty on three counts and guilty on a fourth charge said that if they had had more information they likely would have found the Loganville farmer not guilty on all charges.

The two jurors spoke at a forum in the Rock Springs public library last week.

When Michele Hopp of Merrimac finished the weeklong trial in the early morning hours of May 25, she immediately began scouring the internet for information on the case.

"We had been good and not read or talked about the case while we were sitting on the jury, but once the case was over and I began to read more about it, I felt like we hadn’t been told the whole story," she said.

Hopp, a former school teacher who currently manages a telecommunications company, said she had made herself sick after the trial, wishing the jury had found Hershberger not guilty on all counts.

But she consoled herself with the fact that the jury of seven men and seven women had done the best it could with the facts they were given.

Some of Hershberger’s "buyer’s club" members who were at the Rock Springs forum, and who attended each day of the trial, told the jurors that the fact they had the one guilty verdict gave them more credibility.

"The state really wanted to focus on the licensing issues. We weren’t able to find out what the defense positions were in many cases," Hopp added.

"We did the best we could. We probably made mistakes but we did the best we could. I was so surprised there was so much we didn’t know."

During the trial she began to be bothered by the hard-driving tactics of the prosecutors from the Department of Justice who were aided by lawyers from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

State prosecutors brought the case against Hershberger after the Sauk County district attorney declined to prosecute the farmer.

When members of Hershberger’s buyer’s club were cross-examined by state attorneys, the prosecutors "were really rude and cruel" and "wouldn’t let people finish their sentences. They were constantly objecting," Hopp said.

Kelly Winecke, a second juror at the Rock Springs forum said jurors were not allowed to hear the words "raw milk."

"That couldn’t be brought up in the trial," she added.

After several days of listening to the prosecution’s case, Hopp said it was a relief when the defense began to put on its case on the fourth day of the five-day trial.

The two jurors said they didn’t believe the state had made its case on the three counts of licensing violations for which Hershberger was found innocent.

The state had brought charges against the father of 10 for operating a dairy farm without a license, operating a dairy processing facility and a retail food establishment without those respective licenses.

Hopp said the jury didn’t feel the state proved that the "pantry" on his farm was a retail establishment.

Hopp said the jury felt it had no choice but to find Hershberger guilty of violating the holding order – both Hershberger and his wife Erma had testified that they had broken the seal put on their refrigerator by state inspectors.

But Hopp said the jury should have questioned whether or not the hold order was valid.

She now feels it wasn’t.

The jurors also learned a new word – redacted – which describes the document they saw when they asked to see the holding order that Hershberger was accused of violating. It was so blacked out they couldn’t tell what it said, Hopp said.

"The application of the holding order was wrong and wasn’t called for in this case," Hopp concluded after learning more after the trial. "DATCP never should have issued a holding order against the Hershbergers."

 

DAIRY BACKGROUND

When jurors were being picked at the beginning of the trial they were asked several questions about their background related to dairy farming – if they were dairy farmers or if they knew any dairy farmers.

Winecke, who works in a Rock Springs gas station, said the weeklong experience gave her a whole new appreciation for people who serve on juries – "the justice system not so much," she said.

The issue of religious beliefs didn’t come up during jury selection or during deliberation, but Hopp said she was touched when she heard later that Hershberger, his family and about 20 other people were praying while the jury deliberated.

"When the trial ended and I learned more I found we did not have the full story and I thought ‘what did we do to this man?’" Hopp said.

She immediately made plans to go the sentencing and write a letter to the judge asking for leniency. Hopp called the other jurors and five of them, including Winecke, joined her at the sentencing hearing, a few weeks after the trial’s conclusion. Four had written letters to the judge.

Hopp said she couldn’t speak for the other jurors who contacted Judge Guy Reynolds, but she asked that he not sentence Hershberger to jail time or a large fine. The sentence given included a $1,000 fine and court costs of just over $500.

"I’m not going to push myself on him" Hopp said, "but if Vernon would accept me into his buyer’s club, I would like to join."

The grandmother of four was especially taken with the video clips showing the farm, his club members and his children doing chores on the Loganville farm.

Hopp said she was also struck by testimony from several members of the buyer’s club who expressed their conviction that they were truly a part of the farm.

"I could tell members were telling the truth, Vernon and Erma were telling the truth. These nice people said ‘this is our story.’"

 

BECOMING MEMBERS

There are several jurors from the case who have told her they would like to visit the farm and some would like to become members, she added.

Hershberger, who unexpectedly attended the Rock Springs forum with his wife Erma and eight of their 10 children, said he has 200 families in his buyer’s club. He got started providing people with raw milk in 2003 because they were "good friends who wanted it."

After that "word got around" to other people who also wanted it, he said.

Hopp said the jury found it easy to reach not guilty verdicts on the charges of operating a dairy farm and a dairy processing facility without a license. The retail establishment charge took longer and there was much discussion about the holding order violation on which they found Hershberger guilty.

When the trial was over Hopp said she was surprised to learn how much of the testimony had been dictated by pre-trial motions. Information on raw milk and on the buyer’s club was not allowed into evidence.

 

HOLDING ORDER

Though the jury found Hershberger guilty on the holding order violation, "it really didn’t feel right," said Hopp.

"It seemed like Vernon was trying to work with the state and the state wasn’t working with him," Winecke added.

Hopp said that with the tactics that were being used by the prosecution, she was "grateful" that they didn’t cross-examine Erma Hershberger after she testified for the defense – talking especially about the day that state officials "raided" the farm.

During the Rock Springs forum, Hopp asked Hershberger why he didn’t challenge the holding order – when DATCP regulators came to his farm and placed a seal on food that was in the pantry. At that time they also dyed milk in his cooler blue, to make it unmarketable into commercial channels.

The farmer said that many of his buyer’s club members did challenge the holding order and his lawyers now tell him they think he should have pushed back harder against it.

"It would have been nice to hear that," Hopp said.

Hopp and Winecke said that on Tuesday, after the jury was selected, they were asked to assemble in a remote parking lot so they could be shuttled to the courthouse and avoid demonstrators.

"That added to our anxiety," said Hopp. "Who are these demonstrators?"

After the verdict was read by the judge, he asked the attorneys if they wanted to poll the jury. The state declined, but defense attorney Glenn Reynolds (no relation to the judge) asked for it.

"That was a really powerful moment," said Hopp. "At last we were given a voice. It was empowering."

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