Thursday, December 11, 2014

CNN airs "Dinosaur 13", where a politicized prosecution overshadows the science

CNN Films is giving an early look at the Sundance documentary (also owned by Lionsgate for DVD and possibly limited theatrical relase) “Dinosaur 13”, directed by Todd Douglas Miller.  The film is based on materials from the book “Rex Appeal: The Amazing Story of Sue, the Dinosaur that Changed Science, the Law and My Life”, by Peter Larson with Kristin Donnan. 
The legal documentary follows the discovery in 1990 of the fossil “Sue”, a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, one of the most complete ever found, in northwestern South Dakota, on the edge of the Badlands and not far from the Black Hills.
Most of the film concerns the sad story of paleontologist Peter Larson, who, with his brother Neal, founded the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, SD.  Larson allegedly removed some of Sue from “private” land held in trust by the federal government.  Later, after some sort of complaint by the landowner Maurice Williams, the federal government seized the fossil and prosecuted some people, including Larson, who was also prosecuted for failure to declare some items to customs and sentenced to two years of prison, which, after 18 months, would be followed by halfway house and then home detention.
The seizures, prosecutions and convictions seem politically motivated, and it isn’t real clear from the film how the fibbies or landowners or tribes gained anything at all (except at the end where Williams gets a lot of proceeds from an auction at Sotherby's).  The government (even after a change to the Clinton administration and Reno Justice Department, or maybe because of it) pressed various charges for "theft", "wire fraud", "money laundering" and "false answers to customs" regarding various additional fossil remains takings from several other states into S.D. The case would probably make for a good “Cato book forum” with Neal (and his brother) at the Cato Institute (I went to another one today involving a gun case, for Biran D, LAitken), as an example of prosecutorial abuse or overreach.  The Legal Guys on CNN’s Saturday show should discuss this.

One of the (female) reporters actually married Peter.  Yes, journalists aren't supposed to fall in love with their own subjects,  A woman originally involved with the 1990 finding (after whom the dinosaur was named) was coerced into testifying for the prosecution. It's all quite incredible. 
This documentary is being compared to others where CNN has paired with major film distributors to present ethical or legal cases involving animals, such as “Blackfish” (Moves blog, July 29, 2013) and “The Cove” (Movie blog, Aug. 7, 2009).  This film is shot 2.35:1 and shown that way (cropped on flat screens slightly) on television.
The official site for the film is here
Sue is now in a Chicago museum, enjoying a certain vicarious immortality. She was formidable in her own time.

I drove through the area (north of Pierre) near the film in May 1998, and then again Thanksgiving weekend 1999.  I recall a huge power station north if Pierre, one of the largest in the country.  I had visited the Black Hills earlier in 1974.  Other people I know had done retreats on Sioux reservations at Pine Ridge. 

Wikipedia attribution link for typical western South Dakota scenery, here.   There are relevant materials at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington that I can try to add to the review after another future visit.

Update: Dec. 13

Here's picture of another "rex" fossil, at the Smithsonian, Museum of Natural History. This was found in 1998 in eastern Montana, and I actually made a trip through that area Memorial Day weekend of that year, when living in Minneapolis.

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