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Man sues plant: An improbable, utterly amusing trial

| Staff Writer

I’ve always wanted to be summoned for jury duty. It feels to me like one of those quintessential institutions of American democracy, like public libraries and the postal service. But when I found myself in the Old Courthouse downtown last Wednesday, in a trial that felt high-stakes and oh, by the way, the defendant was literally a potted plant, it wasn’t exactly how I’d pictured my first participation with the legal process. But somehow, it was even more delightful than I imagined.

I arrived at the historic Old Courthouse on a cold but sunny afternoon at the behest of an email I’d received some weeks prior from enthusiastic event organizer Jean Ponzi, soliciting volunteer jurors for an educational trial. Dale Dufer, local woodworker, lifelong St. Louis resident and Ponzi’s husband, had sued the exotic plant Bush Honeysuckle, for causing damage to the native ecosystems of Missouri. The trial was branded as “Man Sues Plant?,” and I knew that bush honeysuckle was persistent and considered pretty invasive in Missouri, but beyond that, I had little idea what I was getting into.

Screen-Shot-2018-04-09-at-2.20.00-AMIllustration by Josh Zucker

After gaping at the courthouse’s gorgeous architecture, I found my way the jury’s holding room. I quickly realized that, except for a couple of teenagers who were collected from the visitors roaming around the Old Courthouse to fill out the group of 12, I was the youngest juror by about 30 years. My fellow jurors, including a pair of nuns, all seemed to know Ponzi in one way or another, and it was a testament to her enthusiasm that we were all brought together for this improbable but wonderful occasion.

I also realized that whatever expectations I had going into this quirky event, I would be consistently surprised. The trial was presided over by a retired judge—the Honorable Anna C. Forder, a notable local figure as the first woman on the St. Louis circuit court—and the plaintiff and defendant were represented by real lawyers—Kathleen Henry, Executive Director of the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, and Ted Heisel, former director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, respectively.

Juxtaposed with the weight brought by the trial’s impressive legal participants was the air of playfulness—after all, we were quite literally trying a plant. The event was imbued with little details that made me giggle: instead of a Bible, the witnesses swore on a copy of the Flora of Missouri. The tables that the lawyers and witnesses stood at were hand-made by the plaintiff using branches of none other than the Bush Honeysuckle. Pre-trial entertainment was provided by a local band playing folksy, bluegrass-inflected music called the Augusta Bottoms Consort.

The trial was a perfect balance of serious and utterly ludicrous—it could have tipped over the edge any number of times, but the grandiose setting and tongue-in-cheek legal arguments somehow made it work. The defense made a valiant effort to humanize the plant-defendant, nicknaming him (her? it?) “Lonnie,” in reference to bush honeysuckle’s Latin name of Lonicera mackii. Lawyer Heisel (who at one point was referred to as “Farmer Ted”) built his defense on an immigration narrative, that we humans in the courtroom had no more claim to the St. Louis land than “Lonnie” and his brethren did—and to some extent, to be fair, he had a good point.

I felt the drama of the event once it was finally time for the jurors to file out of the courtroom. Shuttered in our chambers, twelve people around a table in a heavy wood-panelled room, we had a big decision to make. After a few minutes of deliberation, we decided unanimously to convict the bush honeysuckle on the count of being an invasive species in Missouri.

Although the trial of bush honeysuckle was purely educational, it may serve as a precedent for real legal action. If Missouri’s Department of Agriculture agrees to add bush honeysuckle to its list of noxious weeds—an action that, so far, it’s been reluctant to take—then the state’s Department of Conservation will have the jurisdiction to prosecute those who sell and plant it. And even if nothing does come of it, this trial will surely remain one of the strangest and most delightful in the Old Courtroom’s history.