Judge Throws Out Felony Charges Against Climate Defenders!
BAGLEY, MN — District Court Judge Robert Tiffany acquitted defendants of all charges today in the Clearwater County case of two “Valve Turners,” Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston, and support person Ben Joldersma. Judge Tiffany ruled that the prosecution failed to demonstrate any evidence of damage to two Enbridge pipelines. Klapstein and Johnston faced state felony charges for their part in the “Shut It Down” climate direct action two years ago, in which climate activists successfully disrupted all five pipelines carrying Canadian tar sands crude oil into the United States.
The acquittal came a week after the climate activists were preparing to present a “climate necessity defense,” with expert testimony in areas including pipeline safety, climate science, climate policy and the efficacy of civil disobedience. The expert witnesses would have corroborated the defendants’ testimony that their actions were justified by the need to avert imminent climate catastrophe. However, in a stunning about-face last week, the court forbade all expert testimony related to climate change and civil disobedience, while still allowing safety testimony, and possibly testimony to direct, non-climate impacts of tar sands extraction and pipelines.
“The Judge found what I was about to tell the jury: that these defendants caused no damage to the two pipelines they closed. Indeed, they acted out of concern for communities that are harmed by fossil fuel pipelines, and the climate emergency,” said Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, an expert who authored the American Pipeline Institute pipeline safety guidelines.
“While I’m very glad that the court acknowledged that we did not damage the pipelines, I’m heartbroken that the jury didn’t get to hear our expert witnesses and their profoundly important warnings about the climate crisis,” said defendant Emily Johnston, 52, a Seattle resident and poet. “We are fast losing our window of opportunity to save ourselves and much of the beauty of this world. We turned those valves to disrupt the business-as-usual that we know is leading to catastrophe, and to send a strong message that might focus attention to the problem. We will continue to do that in every peaceful way we can; the stakes are far too high for us not to,” Johnston added.
With the acquittal, the case establishes two important legal precedents.
“First, the climate necessity defense was upheld by the highest court in the State, which affirmed that these climate activists had the right to assert the climate necessity defense to a jury,” said Lauren Regan, Executive Director of the Eugene Oregon-based Civil Liberties Defense Center.
“Further, the defendants were acquitted of felony criminal damage to critical energy infrastructure and pipelines. In an attack on our democracy, this law, like others of its kind in 31 states, was pushed through the state legislature at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, which sought to increase the penalties against activists who dared to challenge the profiteering motives of some of the biggest corporations,” Regan said.
Dr. James Hansen was another of the expert witnesses scheduled to give testimony. “It’s great that the defendants were found not guilty, but we missed an opportunity to inform the public about the injustice of climate change. Now we need to go on offense against the real criminals, the government,” said Former NASA Chief Scientist Dr. Hansen. “The government, especially the Trump Administration, is guilty of not protecting the constitutional rights of young people. They should have a plan to phase down fossil fuel emissions, but instead they aid and abet the expansion of fossil fuel mining, which, if not stopped, will guarantee devastating consequences for young people.”
“As older white people, we acknowledge that our white privilege may have resulted in better treatment in the legal system than activists of color often receive. That is why it is important for people of privilege to take bolder risk on behalf of the planet” said defendant Annette Klapstein. “There are lives in the balance, thousands of people are already dying from the effects of climate change and if we don’t put a stop to it, it will be millions within a few short years. It is morally unacceptable to me to stand idly by while even one life is sacrificed to the greedy oil company executives and their already rich shareholders and the banks who fund them can continue to make their even more obscene profits at the expense of all life on earth,” Klapstein added.
FURTHER QUOTES AND STATEMENTS
Ben Joldersma, defendant, software engineer and father of three:
“Standing up to the oil corporations is scary, and while my wife and I were aware of the risk we were taking, in the face of the things we will lose we knew being in support of Emily and Annette was the right decision. So, 20 or 30 years from now, as the world descends further into climate chaos and our kids ask us what were we doing in 2018, we can look them square in the eye and honestly tell them we did everything we could.
While I’m glad the court acquitted the three of us I am disappointed not to take the stand. In the two years since the action, more than one billion barrels of tar sands oil have passed through Lines 4 and 67 here in Minnesota. We are in a climate emergency that presents the gravest threat our civilization has ever faced and we have just a few short years to make some very hard changes. The good news is that if we as a people do that work it could be a powerful engine for our economy, creating 65 million good new jobs and eliminate the Fossil Fuels Tax: trillions of dollars in health care and disaster recovery costs from air pollution and climate change.”
Annette Klapstein, retired attorney and grandmother
I want to acknowledge that we were treated more gently by the court than any people of color ever are and we know that is in part because of our white privilege. As older white people we are often in the best position to take the riskier actions because we will be treated more gently. We know from our young activist friends who are people of color that when they take any kind of direct action, they run the risk of having police showing up and shooting them. And this happens over and over for no reason whatsoever. And when they are arrested they are almost always treated more harshly by the criminal justice system.
We see this in the trials of the indigenous people who were arrested at Standing Rock many of them have been charged with felonies for doing much less than the Valve Turners did, and most of them are being convicted and given harsh sentences, such as a several years.
Because I was a lawyer and spent many years working within the legal system, I know how poorly the legal system sometimes works for ordinary people and how incapable it is of adequately addressing some issues. Ultimately, I decided to take this action because my conscience would not let me do otherwise. There are people all over the world who are already losing their homes and even their lives to the catastrophic effects of climate change – they have no choice but to deal with the climate emergency we are now in. So I feel that morally, I have no choice either.
There are lives in the balance, thousands of people are already dying from the effects of climate change and if we don’t put a stop to it, it will be millions within a few short years. Every life is precious and it is absolutely morally unacceptable to me to stand idly by while even one life is sacrificed so that greedy oil company executives and their already rish shareholders and the banks who fund them can continue to make their even more obscene profits at the expense of all life on earth. I did this because I have tried every legal possibility many times – I would not have chosen to break the law if I had any other effective alternative – but we are almost completely out of time to turn this around and I believe it is absolutely my moral duty to step up and put my body on the line to stop these fossil fuel corporations from destroying the very basis of life on earth.
I have very mixed feelings about het verdict. On the one hand I am very happy to have been acquitted and quite frankly to be off of bail so that I that don’t have to be so careful about committing other acts of civil disobedience. I’ve been very careful for the past two years while on bail because if I was arrested I might have been taken back to the Clearwater County jail to await my trial.
We are in a dire and desperate time, the widow of opportunity to turn around the climate catastrophe is now rapidly closing. We have at most maybe two years. According to the recent IPCC report, and as basically all the climate scientist have told us, this is the time, and if we don’t do it now it will be past the tipping point, and state of climate catastrophe will be permanent, until the point that virtually all life on earth will be extinct.
Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, author of the American Pipeline Institute pipeline safety guidelines.
“I was to testify concerning two essential elements of the case. The first was whether Emily and Annette damaged the pipelines. They did not, as the judge ruled, damage the pipelines. The flipside of that is the question: Do pipelines and the petrochemical products they deliver damage, increase risk or harm anybody? The answer to those questions is an emphatic yes.”
Kelsey Skaggs, Attorney and Executive Director, Climate Defense Project
“This case is about an act of civil disobedience. As part of the necessity defense, we were prepared to present evidence that civil disobedience is an effective way to influence social and policy change. Our expert witnesses would have testified about the rich tradition of civil disobedience in the United States–including the abolition of slavery, the women’s suffrage movement, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s–and the important role of civil disobedience in fighting fossil fuels”
Alice Cherry, Attorney and Co-Founder, Climate Defense Project.
“Although the defendants were disappointed that they were unable to present their case to a jury, the acquittal is a significant step forward for activists who have increasingly turned to the court system to press their demands for action on climate change. In three cases involving Valve Turners in other states who coordinated their actions with the Minnesota activists, defendants were convicted after being denied the opportunity to present a necessity defense. In Minnesota, today’s courtroom victory follows a lengthy effort to defend the activists’ right to argue climate necessity, a battle which went all the way to the state supreme court.”
Here is a 4-minute wrap-up video of last week’s #ClimateTrail where the Valve Turners were on trial for their role in shutting down every tar sands pipeline coming into the United States — the video does a really good job of explaining what the necessity defense is and also includes some interviews with expert witnesses, Dr. James Hansen, and Anthony Ingraffea, who wrote the American Petroleum Insitute’s pipeline safety guidelines.