"I have only one trial before me, and it's theft," said Circuit Court Judge Masato Dol in the case of the release of a pair of valuable research dolphins. His comment dashed the hopes of some friends of marine mammals that the trial would become a landmark for animal rights.
It took the jury just 40 minutes to find Kenneth LeVasseur guilty of grand theft for depriving the University of Hawaii's Institute of Marine Biology of two dolphins named Puka and Kea by releasing them into the Pacific from a beach some 30 miles outside Honolulu on May 29.
LeVasseur and Steven Sipman, who is to be tried in February on the same charges, hoped to see the trial as a platform for what they called the "moral and philosophical ideas that human beings have no rights to hold intelligent, feeling beings like dolphins in captivity."
However, the judge ruled that all such issues were irrelevant to the simple case of theft, and he instructed the jury to consider the dolphins as property like any other. The two dolphins were obtained by the university from the Navy for research about their intelligence, perception, memory and ability to communicate.
Defense attorney Jack Schweigert said the case will certainly be appealed. "I believe that a higher court will allow testimony on the question of whether a sentient being that is aware of its own environment, as dolphins are, can be called property."
Among the people Schweigert wanted to call for the defense were Ric O'Feldman, the man who trained dolphins for the television program "Flipper" and then released them into the ocean; Peter Morgane, a dolphin researcher who worked with Dr. John Lilly, another scientist who released his captive dolphins and psychologists and veterinarians who support their views.
Schweigert said they were willing to travel to Honolulu for the trial, and that they would likely be willing to testify on the question of dolphins' rights if future trials occur.
Doi did permit LeVasseur to discuss his reasons for releasing the dolphins and his opinion about their treatment in a six-hour stint on the witness stand, but he did not allow other testimony that didn't directly relate to the issue of theft.
Dr. Paul Spong, a marine mammal specialist who is an official of Greenpeace, the privately supported "Save the Whales" foundation, bemoaned the narrow range of issues at the trial.
During the trial Greenpeace issued a "Declaration of Dolphin Rights" that said in prat, "In the spirit that moved lawmakers to enfranchise first men with property, then men free and white and finally women, we plead with today's lawmakers to treat generously that intelligence of the sea . . . We charge our legislators and judges to recognize that all species have the basic right not to suffer at human hands."
On the stand, LeVasseur said the dolphins' solitary life in five feet of pertiments was like keeping a human water in separate 50-foot tanks for ex-being alone in a 10-by-10 room and telling him to communicate with an elephant.
University officials denied that the dolphins were mistreated in any way or that experiments were improper.
Popular support for LeVasseur's position in Honolulu was eroded by widely reported assertious that the two dolphins, unfamiliar with the waters they were released into, were probably killed by sharks, almost immediately after being "freed."