A man in rural Rolfe, who was convicted of illegally cutting and stealing dozens of trees from a wildlife management area in northwest Iowa, is arguing that an 800-year-old English charter protects his actions.

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Who Is This Man?

Jason Levant Ferguson, 41, wants a judge to overturn last month's jury verdict which found him guilty of 51 charges related to unauthorized tree cutting from public property in Pocahontas County. His attorney, Kevin Fors, contends that the provisions of the Charter of the Forest, established in 1217 by King Henry III, were passed onto the US via common law after it gained independence from England. The charter includes a provision that allows every freeman to take care of his own wood in our forest.

“When we have the need to depend upon these rights, they need to be there for our protection or our society will not endure and we will spiral into authoritarianism much the same as happened in the time before the Charter of the Forest,” Fors wrote.

What Is He Accused Of?

According to court records, Ferguson is accused of removing over 100 trees from the Stoddard Wildlife Management Area over a span of a year, with intentions to use the timber to construct a house. The trees included a centuries-old bur oak with a six-foot diameter at its trunk base.

Articles Published Before The Trial

Several days before Ferguson's trial, the Iowa Capital Dispatch published a news article on state-wide timber thefts, partly detailing allegations against him. Several newspapers later republished this article.

“This article was picked up by other sources and was so dominate that it became an issue at a political rally of presidential politicians in Pocahontas during the trial,” Fors wrote. He did not elaborate.

The article disclosed Ferguson's felon status and mentioned evidence of marijuana cultivation and methamphetamine production at his property. The evidence was, however, dismissed because the search approval process was mishandled by a magistrate. Fors indicated that it's probable that jurors had access to this news coverage and accused the State of conspiring with Capital Dispatch to sway the jurors.

Deforestation. Freshly chopped tree trunks. Copyspace upper left corner.
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“It is well known that in Russia the State uses the news to assert its position; this has been especially noticeable since the start of the war in Ukraine,” Fors wrote. “This is the first time I have been involved in a case where those tactics were used by the State so vehemently against my client.”

The primary source of information regarding timber thefts for Capital Dispatch was the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The Department provided the information when asked by a reporter, and had no control over the content or publishing schedule of the article.

It is indicated in court records that possible jurors were questioned on whether they had been exposed to media coverage of the allegations made against Ferguson. The trial spanned four days, during which judges typically instruct jurors to steer clear of media coverage during trial recesses.

More than a year prior, The Fort Dodge Messenger newspaper had released an article highlighting allegations of drug and weapons-related activities involving Ferguson.

Attorney Admitted Failure

Fors, an attorney licensed in Iowa for nearly four decades, also admitted his failure to contest a prosecution argument. He believes this argument violated Ferguson's right to avoid self-incrimination.

“Defendant’s attorney has only been trying one jury trial a year since the beginning of the pandemic and as such was rusty and did not object to the testimony at trial,” Fors wrote. “This failure to object was a failure to provide the defendant with effective assistance of counsel.”

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Fors asserted that it was incorrect for the prosecutor to criticize the defense for not presenting a witness who could attest to Ferguson's prior authorization to fell trees from the property, as he claimed.

Fors further reasoned that, as Ferguson could have testified on this matter himself, the prosecutor's argument implicitly suggested Ferguson was guilty because he chose not to testify. Such an insinuation would breach the Fifth Amendment. Fors acknowledged his failure to challenge this could be grounds for an appeal after conviction, should the judge concur with the jury's verdict.

Wanting A Retrial

Ferguson is appealing for an acquittal or a retrial. His sentencing is due next month and he could receive a five-year prison term for a felony theft offense and an additional one year each for 50 counts of timber buyer violations.

The Pocahontas County Attorney, Daniel Feistner, prosecuting the case, hasn't filed any formal responses to Fors’ requests. He conveyed to the Iowa Capital Dispatch that he expects these matters to be examined at a hearing prior to sentencing.

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