Report from Fort Benton, Montana – Day 1 of Leonard Higgins’ Valve-Turner Trial 11/22/2017
The trial really begins with jury selection. By way of a series of questions, thirteen are chosen from a group of thirty citizens from Chouteau (pronounced Show-Tow) County. Some potential jurors are let go for “cause” – meaning they are disqualified due to circumstances that would prevent them from being able to be open-minded or fair about deciding the case. This judge let two jurors go for “cause” because they said they had family Thanksgiving travel plans, but he did not excuse four potential jurors who said they believed “the defendant,” in this case, Leonard, was guilty. One man added, “It’s stupid to do something like that just to get your name in the paper and get a pat on the back from their friends.” When the prosecutor asked those four, “If the judge instructed you to put aside your opinions, would you follow the judge’s instructions?” A “Yes” answer kept them in the jury pool. A number of jurors mentioned they’d had personal experiences with “trespassers”and felt strongly about it. One of Leonard’s lawyers, Herman Watson, never used the words “climate” or “environment”, but he did engage farmers and ranchers in discussions of drought and “too much” rain at the wrong time. He also brought out their love of hunting and the care they took of their land that provided their livelihoods. A number of the potential jurors did agree they considered themselves to be “conservationists.”
Leonard is charged with Criminal Trespass and Criminal Mischief. To be found guilty of the Criminal Mischief charge, damages must exceed $1,500. This is a felony charge and can result in a 10 year prison sentence. Criminal Trespass is a misdemeanor, bringing a maximum of six months in jail and possibly a fine. An Enbridge oil executive got on the stand and testified that an $800 valve part was damaged and $100 worth of chains were cut. He went on to talk about how shutting down the valve cost them time and money for technicians to check the rest of the pipeline. He talked about the workers having to drive to the location and said he spent an entire day dealing with the issue, at his hourly rate of $100 an hour.
Co-counsel, Eugene’s Civil Liberties Defense Center Executive Director, Lauren Regan, was brilliant! She pointed out that no new workers or contractors were hired to deal with the valve turning and that company cars were driven, by the workers, whose normal day was driving the pipeline checking and/or maintaining the pipeline and compressor valves. The one defense witness called was a Ph.D., on video conference, from Cornell University. His credentials included 40 years working as an oil energy engineer. He explained that sections of pipelines were turned off regularly and there was no harm in doing so. Lauren’s “coup de gras” was reading from an industry report citing the “valve turning” in Montana had resulted in “no injuries or damage.”
The support for Leonard here is amazing! 350 members from Seattle, Portland, Corvallis, Salem, Eugene, Montana and a handful farther afield, over 40 climate justice warriors converged here for the trial. In the mornings we meet at a local church for a devotional to meditate, sing, read poetry and share encouragement before walking to the courthouse.
After six hours in the courtroom today, the legal strategy became clear. Leonard will admit to the trespass charge but will fight the $1,500 in damages in the Criminal Mischief charge, thereby avoiding the felony conviction.
Tomorrow at 8:30 am Leonard will take the stand and tell his story of why he did what he did.
Those of us who love and support him will be there to witness!
Day 2, Chouteau Courthouse, Fort Benton, Montana – Leonard Higgins’ – Valve-Turner Trial. November 22, 2017
FYI: Yesterday morning it was 19 degrees here and snowing. This morning it was 57 degrees and dry. Weather extremes, here and now.
At 8:30 a.m. Leonard Higgins was called to the stand. Defense attorney, Herman Watson, began by questioning Leonard about his family history and work employment. His great grandfather homesteaded in Oregon in 1884. The family farm in Springfield was passed down within the family until it was lost during the depression. Leonard has five children and two grandchildren. He worked as a farm hand, in lumber mills, as a carpenter and then for 31 years as a technology information project manager for the state of Oregon. Family, community, making life better and standing up for what is right is who Leonard is.
Leonard’s testimony was interrupted multiple times by objections as to the “relevance” of why he was involved in the action. Leonard was attempting to reveal his intention and state of mind that compelled him to turn the valve to stop the toxic Canadian tar sands oil from flowing.
Leonard aptly revealed his heart-felt conviction that climate change is devastating and that he wants a safe, livable planet for his grandchildren and all life; that this was the motivation for his action. Goodness and love exuded from Leonard as he gave his testimony. The prosecutor, in large part allowed by the judge, did everything he could to prevent Leonard from describing our current climate danger.
The night before the trial a number of us were engaged in a conversation with North Dakota Valve-Turner, Michael Foster. During that conversation I had an insight: Now that we know that burning fossil fuels has changed the basic dynamics that sustain life, to me it follows that “fossil fuel use is child abuse.” We can tell ourselves any delusion we want, but our lifestyles are destroying our children’s and grandchildren’s futures. This gross immorality deeply demonstrates how far we have fallen short of the being the humans we could be.
After barely an hour, the jury returned with convictions of guilty on both counts. Next the attorneys, judge and Leonard set a date for the sentencing hearing: Jan. 2, 2018. Though sad, disappointed and a little shocked, the faithful spontaneously formed two parallel lines in the courtroom to create a “walkway of honor” in support of Leonard, Angela and Leonard’s daughter, Sarah. As they passed through we softly sang “Lead With Love” by Melanie DeMore.
You gotta put one foot in front of the other, and lead with love.
I know you’re scared. And I’m scared too. But here I am. Right next to you.
You gotta put one foot in front of the other, and lead with love. And lead with love. And lead with love.
Like drops of water wearing away a stone, one action, one trial, activists standing up together against the fossil fuel destruction… We will build a safer, saner and more loving world!
– Deb McGee, Eugene, Oregon