Dateline Covers the Howard Baker Controversy

Last night NBC’s Dateline program featured an in-depth look at the Howard Baker controversy which is a microcosm of the way much of the animal rights movement operates.

Baker is a veterinarian in New Jersey who was accused and convicted of cruelty to animals. Nine months after his conviction, however, an appeals judge acquitted him of all charges. The central question at his original trial and during his appeal was this: can the court trust the word of a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals‘ activist?

The activist in question was Michelle Rokke who has made a part-time career out of infiltrating business on behalf of PETA. Rokke was the activist who stole thousands of documents from Huntingdon Life Sciences, forcing PETA into a settlement agreement which forbids them from campaigning against HLS (which is why you haven’t heard anything from PETA about the company).

Rokke claimed she went to work for Baker to obtain experience in working with animals, but witnessed abuse her very first week on the job. Nonetheless she worked for Baker for several years, and in the process secretly recorded hundreds of hours of videotape of Baker treating animals. A 20-minute portion of one of those videotapes was the basis for the animal cruelty charge.

The video shows Baker treating a dalmatian. In the video, Baker is clearly very angry with the animal and says things like, “I hate rotten dogs! Stop biting me or I’ll choke you to death!” He also strikes the animal at least once. Baker testified the dog tried to bite him and he took necessary and proper actions to protect himself and his staff. Rokke testified that Baker savagely hit the dog over the head — off camera — and that she saw him repeatedly abuse other animals in his care. Other people who worked with Baker in his office testified that although Baker used appropriate force to restrain animals that presented a potential threat, they never saw him engage in any sort of abuse.

The bottom line in the trial was whether or not Rokke made a credible witness in her testimony that, off camera, Baker violently attacked the dalmatian and her accusations that this was part of a pattern of behavior she had witnessed for years.

The trial judge, Emory Toth, convicted Baker on 14 counts of animal cruelty saying that he found Rokke an extremely credible witness and didn’t think that the fact that she was a PETA activist who admitted on the stand that she had lied repeatedly in the past in any way diminished the credibility of her testimony. The appeals court judge, Joyce Munkacsi, made a surprising ruling when she ruled that Rokke lacked credibility. This is surprising since generally a trial court’s decision about such evidentiary matters is considered the last word unless the appeals court finds that the trial court made a serious error. In her comments announcing her decision to acquit Baker of all charges, Munkacsi said,

The court below chose to accept wholeheartedly all of the accounts of these events as perceived by Rokke. This court respectfully disagrees with the assessment of credibility by the court below, and I cannot find Michelle Rokke to be a credible witness such as to be the reed on which the state has built this case.

After seeing some of Rokke’s testimony, it’s difficult to fathom why Toth found Rokke so credible. Consider this exchange between Rokke and Baker’s attorney,

Attorney: Nowhere in this [employment] application did you tell or did you put down on this sheet that you were a PETA employee at the very time you were seeking employment from Dr. Baker. Is that correct? Yes or no?

Rokke: Yes

Attorney: So you lied on this application?

Rokke: I did not list that PETA was my employer.

Attorney: You lied on this application.

Rokke: I–I didn’t list PETA on the employment, correct.

[Later Rokke is shown a picture from a PETA magazine accompanying an article about Rokke’s investigation of pregnant mares used to producer premarin. The photo is cropped closely so that the reader is not aware that he’s looking at a picture of a male horse rather than a mare.]

Attorney: Do you think that was all misleading, the use of that photograph, carefully cropped so you couldn’t see whether it was a pregnant mare or a male stallion?

Rokke: I don’t think it was, because if you have a lot of pregnant mares, you obviously have male horses, so their care and treatment came into play as well.

Later, bringing up her undercover work at HLS, the attorney for Baker asks Rokke whether or not she broke the law in stealing documents from them,

Attorney: Do you think you’re a criminal because you broke the laws at Huntingdon?

Rokke: Well, I’m not certain that I’ve broken the law, to be perfectly honest with you. You know, I’ve not been held up on trial in a court of law as a criminal, so no, I don’t think I’m a criminal.

Attorney: Stealing company records? Stealing client lists? Stealing trade secrets? Disseminating that information?

Rokke: Well, I–I certainly don’t think of myself as a criminal, no.

Attorney: Because the end justifies the means?

Rokke: I just think the public has a right to know what’s going on behind those locked doors.

It is bizarre that Toth considered her credible after those exchanges, since whatever else Rokke is, she clearly is adept at interpreting events in the most self-serving manner possible. As the judge who would have heard the HLS case had it not been settled put it, in her testimony in depositions for that case Rokke had “misrepresented” and “rationalized” her actions to fulfill her mission.

Thankfully Munkacsi saw through the facade. Baker is currently suing Rokke and PETA for defamation and malicious prosecution.

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