Montana Day 1 Narrative

Leonard’s trial is moving along at a fast pace. Today we seated a jury, heard the prosecution’s case, and heard the first defense witness.

It was still dark when we left to meet Leonard this morning, and the ground was dusted with light ice and snow. Standing in the freezing cold in a sport coat, the man we all came to support looked radiant. Together, we strolled the few blocks to the community church, where Deb McGee and Patty Hine from Eugene, OR led a meditation and song circle for the 30+ people who gathered. Then, off to the Chouteau County Courthouse, just a few more blocks down the way.

We find ourselves baffled by the sweet ease of life in Fort Benton. The big winds are gone and the air is still, so still that when the flocks of ducks fly overhead we can hear their wings announcing themselves and it is bizarrely loud.

It’s clear to us that Leonard has assembled a fantastic legal team: attorneys Herman Watson from Bozeman, Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, and Kelsey Skaggs of the Climate Defense Project. During jury selection Herman, composed and affable, looked at the jury and established his team’s principal intention:

“I want Leonard Higgins to be able to tell you his story.”

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As in North Dakota, people in Montana have strong opinions about trespassing. Throughout voir dire (the process through which potential jurors are vetted for bias and competence), several candidates expressed their conviction that Leonard wouldn’t have ended up in court if he wasn’t guilty. Despite this clear bias, none of these jurors were struck for cause, and jury selection wrapped up by lunch. When they were seated for trial, Herman set the tone: “How many of you hunt? How many of you fish?” The prospective jurors began to talk about their love of the outdoors, land, clean water, conservation. One expressed her experience as a farmer: “When you take care of the land, the land takes care of you.” Another described the ability to go out and hunt her own food as a “privilege.”

The prosecution is solely focused on proving that Leonard personally caused Spectra (now Enbridge) over $1,500 in damages, which would satisfy the threshold for the felony charge of criminal mischief. While they don’t deny Leonard’s trespass, the defense argues that without any avenue to argue the necessity of his actions, or to defend them in the context of climate catastrophe, there isn’t much left to say. Arguments against Leonard are presented with the cadence of someone reading an itemized receipt: Employee X drove 75 miles. Employee Y drove 75 more. Their numbers are plugged into unambitious equations and presented to the court as self-evident.

Despite the clear intent of the prosecution to keep the notion of ethical protest far from the proceedings, the prosecution’s own witnesses tell the tender story of Leonard’s action, admitting to his clearly stated intent of nonviolent protest They even describe the autumn leaves he’d woven into the chain. And the prosecution rests.

Herman Watson had reserved his opening remarks at the beginning of the trial so he could deliver them at the start of Leonard’s defense case. And his remarks are profoundly felt in the courtroom. The opening witness is Anthony Ingraffia from Cornell, an expert in fracture mechanics applied to energy resource and transport. “Halting the flow of a pipeline, in the manner it occurred during Leonard’s actions, happens during standard procedure and is not an unusual operational event.” He also says, that “If a person was diligent and rigorous in reading readily available technical journals on pipeline maintenance, it would be relatively straight forward for someone to learn to safely shut down a pipeline.” #ClimateTrial

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Sketches from Peter.

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