After Judge Refused to Allow Climate Change Experts To Testify In Their Defense, Climate Activists Michael Foster and Sam Jessup Are Convicted on Felony Charges in North Dakota Court for Shutting Off the Keystone Tar Sands Pipeline
[Cavalier, North Dakota – October 6, 2017] The landmark trial of Michael Foster, a mental health counselor in his 50s from Seattle, just ended in conviction on several felony charges for his action of shutting off the emergency valve on the Keystone 1 tar sands pipeline in North Dakota to fight climate change.
Foster was convicted in North Dakota’s Pembina County District Court of criminal mischief, conspiracy to commit criminal mischief (both felonies) and criminal trespass (a misdemeanor). He was acquitted on the charge of reckless endangerment. The convictions carry a total maximum sentence of 21 years.
Foster’s co-defendant Sam Jessup, who livestreamed Foster’s action, was convicted of conspiracy to commit criminal mischief (a felony) and conspiracy trespass (a misdemeanor). His convictions carry a total maximum sentence of 11 years.
Foster and Jessup are out on bail awaiting sentencing, which is scheduled for January 18. The presiding judge, Laurie A. Fontaine, has ordered a pre-sentencing investigation on both defendants.
Reacting to the verdict, Foster said, “We're here to change everything--the laws, whether it's legal to pump tar sands, whether we can defend our young. I've been here in North Dakota a month trying to listen and learn, and I know we have to start these conversations. But the courtroom is for combat, and couldn’t allow us to make a defense that undermines the written codes, even in order to defend life. Unfortunately, we're out of time. Our kids can't wait any longer for us to shut this stuff down."
"I'm feeling so relieved and peaceful right now," Foster added. "I'm grateful to the jury for wrestling with this for several hours. There were some tearful faces in there, I think they were taking it as seriously as they could."
Foster is one of five of #ShutItDown “valve-turners” who acted simultaneously in four states and successfully shut off the flow of tar sands bitumen from Canada into the US -- the equivalent of 15% of daily US oil consumption. They targeted tar sands because it’s the most carbon-intensive, climate-damaging form of oil.
"I still think that if the people of North Dakota were given the opportunity to consider the facts of the climate crisis with the same kind of rigor that lawyers use in a court of law to put evidence before a jury, that they would recognize the emergency," said co-defendant Sam Jessup. "Our government is not responding to this crisis... It's important to find ways for the American people to have the right to deliberate on the greatest crisis we've ever faced."
The trial made national news because it probed the question of whether Foster, Jessup and other climate activists whose trials are pending would be allowed to cite evidence and testimony about climate impacts of carbon-intensive fuels like tar sands to show their actions were motivated by the need to prevent climate damage.
Foster wrote in a Newsweek column this week: " The prosecution...moved to block me from presenting evidence of climate danger, the main reason I acted. Prosecutors argue jurors might be biased by hearing about climate change, or being shown evidence of how dirty fossil fuels like tar sands affect it, and what those impacts mean for North Dakotans and all of us.. ..As a matter of justice, it’s fundamental to have that discussion, and cite evidence to support it, in front of a jury."
That discussion was disallowed by the judge. Dr. James Hansen, perhaps the leading authority on climate change in the US, travelled to North Dakota to testify, because, as he said, "I'm the one who said tar sands are 'game over' for climate, and here [is Michael Foster] facing trial for trying to do something about it." But Hansen and other climate change experts were barred by Judge Fontaine from testifying for the defense. Hansen also prepared written expert testimony, which is available on request. It finds that North Dakotans and all Americans are in serious danger from climate change, unless "meaningful action to confront the crisis" is taken now, especially on tar sands.
“I wonder what the jury would have said if Hansen and the other expert witnesses had been allowed to testify?” said Emily Johnston, a fellow valve-turner whose trial for shutting off the emergency valve on the Enbridge tar sands pipeline is pending in Minnesota. She and her co-defendant retired attorney Annette Klapstein each face charges of criminal damage and criminal trespass, and aiding and abetting both, carrying up to 22 years in jail and fines of up to $46,000.
Ken Ward, valve turner in Skagit County, Washington, was convicted of burglary at a June trial, after two trials in which the judge refused to allow a necessity defense. Leonard Higgins, a retired Oregon state government employee, faces felony charges carrying up to 10 years in jail and fines of up to $50,000 for shutting the emergency valve on the Spectra Energy Express oil sands pipeline in Montana. His trial is scheduled for late November.
NOTE TO EDITORS AND PRODUCERS:
BISMARCK, N.D. — An environmental activist who targeted an oil pipeline in North Dakota a year ago as part of a broader four-state effort to draw attention to climate change is due to stand trial along with the man who filmed his deeds.
Michael Foster’s trial starts Monday in Pembina County. He is among the first in that group of activists to go to trial, following a man in Washington state who was convicted of a burglary charge and served just two days in jail.
On October 11, 2016, five brave climate activists, determined to act commensurately with the truth of unfolding climate cataclysm, closed safety valves on the 5 pipelines carrying tar sands crude oil into the United States. This is their story.
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Welcome to all who have ended up here during valve turner Michael Foster (who shut the Keystone Pipeline valve on October 11, 2016) and Sam Jessup's climate trial in Cavalier, North Dakota. We'll be collecting detailed proceedings of on a new trial blog page that we've started. We'll be posting text updates each day, and inserting video from Facebook and other sources of news as the days proceed. Check it out!
Michael Foster knew what he had to do last October when he turned the valve that shut off the Keystone pipeline in North Dakota: "Stop the poison."
Next Monday, October 2nd, Michael will head to trial in Cavalier, North Dakota to make exactly that point: that he had no reasonable alternative to address the magnitude of the climate crisis, and as a conscientious citizen he was duty-bound to take the most appropriate action. Sam Jessup, who was Michael's support person in North Dakota, is headed to trial as well.
Michael is facing a raft of charges: criminal mischief, criminal conspiracy to commit criminal mischief, reckless endangerment (all felonies) and criminal trespass (a misdemeanor). These charges carry maximum possible jail time of 22 years. Sam is charged with conspiracy trespass and conspiracy to commit criminal mischief, one felony and one misdemeanor, which would have a total maximum possible sentence of 11 years.
It's unlikely they'll get anything near the maximum sentences, but we're still nervous: this is North Dakota; a state which has been systematically trying to criminalize dissent since civil disobedience began at Standing Rock last summer. Michael and Sam are also expecting to be able to do something that Ken was not able to do in his trial: call expert witnesses to testify. We aren't ready to announce Michael and Sam's strategy or witnesses yet, but stay tuned - we are hopeful that this trial is going to cover some new ground.
Follow along on Twitter @ClimateDA, using #ClimateTrial and #ValveTurners for live-tweeting and on Facebook where we'll be doing LIVE video updates outside of the court house and written recaps throughout the days.
Michael Foster appeared Monday, Sept 11th in Cavalier, ND for his pre-trial hearing after making his way from Seattle, WA by both train and bike. Biggest news is that the State's Assistant to the Attorney General, Jonathon Byers is stepping in to aid Pembina County Prosecutor for the trial, October 2, 2017. Today it became clear that the prosecution is very motivated to keep Michael from speaking about **Why** he was compelled to shut down the Keystone Pipeline on October 11, 2016.Read more
Facebook Livestream this Saturday, 11am PST - Sept 16th
Register and Tune in https://zoom.us/webinar/register/3c55cfcbb4c8be398c34be5db4a05ad8
Paleontologist, Professor Peter Ward meets the Valve Turners Saturday, September 16th - 11am for deep conversation on how scientists and activists can communicate the existential necessity of climate action, in both word and deed.
Professor Ward has long communicated how Earth's five major mass extinctions offer a frightening window into the future we ourselves might catalyze. His standing within the scientific community comes from his skill in finding and interpreting what the fossils say about the horror of each environmental cataclysm. His gifts and energy for outreach — for communicating to the public the stark relevance of the science — is top tier.
As valve turner Leonard Higgins has said from the get-go, "If we want people to understand that this is an emergency, then we have to act like it is an emergency." By turning the emergency shut-down valve of the tar sands pipeline transiting Montana, Leonard powerfully communicated by deed.
Join the Valve Turners and author Wen Stephenson as they discuss climate direct action in this time of both monumental hope and profound doom. We'll also be following up with the valve turners about recent legal proceedings.
Wen Stephenson, an independent writer and activist, is a frequent contributor to The Nation and the author of What We're Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice (Beacon Press, 2015). A former editor at The Atlantic and the Boston Globe, he has written about politics and culture for many publications, including Slate, The New York Times, Grist, and the Boston Phoenix.
I posted this earlier on Facebook, and it seems to be going viral. Very happy to contribute it here to the valve turners conversation leading up to tonight's Webinar on "Climate Doom."
I've spent decades horrified by the systemic ecological collapse we are experiencing. Yesterday was the first time I could palpably feel so many of my friends experiencing at least some of this horror. It is indescribably sad, and on some level I feel fortunate to have had so much time to anguish over, and thus emotionally prepare, for what is happening all around us.
It is a fatal misconception that we have any time at all to address climate chaos (or any of the other ecological limits we are violating). Fires like the ones currently raging through the forests of the West ARE the feedback loops that put climate change irreversibly on course to get worse and worse. We are not at the brink of the cliff. We have plummeted over it. What we can try to do now is ecologically analogous to grasping a rock outcrop while already falling, like in a movie.