After brief deliberations, the jury returned with a verdict of guilty on both misdemeanor trespassing and felony criminal mischief. The trespassing verdict surprised no one, but the felony charge required the state to prove Leonard caused $1,500 or more in damages to Spectra, going beyond the cost of the chains he broke with bolt cutters and into far more abstract territory involving subsequent security measures the company took. At times, the prosecution’s argument felt analogous to charging a shoplifter with felony criminal mischief because a grocery store decided to install cameras and hire a full-time guard after a candy bar got stolen.
No one—Leonard least of all—came to this trial thinking there wouldn’t be consequences. The legal framework now exists for those consequences to be very dire, but this by no means is equivalent to a guarantee they will be. The Montana Department of Corrections will issue sentencing recommendations, but sentencing, scheduled for January 2, is ultimately at the discretion of the judge. There is every possibility that Leonard’s motivations and character will factor heavily into his sentence.
As in Washington, but unlike in North Dakota, the jurors seemed generally sympathetic, but fastidious in what they perceive as a duty to convict. A juror interviewed after the trial said these two things: that he “has a lot of respect” for people like Leonard, and that “the law is the law.”
The law is the law, and the world is on fire. These moments are always cause for reflections on fundamental questions—the meaning of struggle, the nature of justice, the fate of society, the fate of our species. Then again, the state of the world is also constant cause for these reflections. We don’t get to know whether our actions will impact the global climate trajectory. We don’t get to know what personal consequences our actions will have. We don’t get to know if our actions will seem “worth it” from the perspective of our future selves.
Time and again, as we struggle against this crisis which is undoing the world, we find that the one thing this struggle accomplishes with absolute certainty is bringing us together. People focus on personal contentment and find themselves miserable and alone—with considerable irony, we accept struggle and sacrifice and find ourselves happy and together. Many of us are staying in Ft. Benton for Thanksgiving, this most confusing of holidays when Americans actually stop and think about the tremendous abundance at their disposal while also lauding colonization. We are preparing food for tomorrow, editing each others’ writing, going bowling, going running, having heartfelt talks, occasionally crying, laughing more often, marveling at the enormous cottonwoods on the Missouri, marveling at the magpies in the gray sky and making friends all over.
Leonard has been convicted of a felony, we can’t know the impact of his action, and there’s nowhere in the world we’d rather be.
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.”
This is an post with a lot of logistical information for folks who are in Fort Benton for Leonard Higgins’s Climate Trial. Please share with your friends who are in town and may not have seen this yet.
Making an Impression
Last night we popped out for a beer and ran into a potential juror. We have the opportunity to be the bearers of Leonard and the Valve Turner story and I trust that we will all do so with the same thoughtfulness and love that the action was performed in. Fort Benton has a population of 1200 and we will quickly make impressions. Let us be kind and courteous and tip well.
Talking to Jurors
If you unwittingly come across a juror as we did, please do not talk about the case. You might unwittingly invalidate that juror’s participation and that juror might have been the coolest climate fellow in the whole county.
Once trial is underway, please refrain from talking about the case in public. We will all have thoughts to process about the words or actions of the judge and lawyers, but doing so publicly is not good or helpful. It’s really hard to refrain, I know - but please don’t do it :)
Do not bring laptops or phones into the courtroom. This judge is stringent and someone was kicked out of Leonard’s hearing last year for bringing out a cell phone. Leonard’s lawyer Herman has said that if he sees you with a cell or laptop, he’ll kick you out himself. Also, please do not bring food or drink into the courtroom. You *might* be allowed a thermos with a lid but we’re not sure yet.
We are meeting at the Community Bible Church each morning. Pastor Joe Jordon, who goes by Joe, is so welcoming and gracious and has given us the use of the church and neighboring community center while we are here. Tuesday and Wednesday morning we’ll be meeting at 7:30am and Thursday we’ll be preparing food and eating together (times for that coming soon).
Our shared meals with supporters begin tomorrow, Tuesday 11-21. Please come to help cook, clean, and eat at the Franklin House: 1105 Franklin St. You can check out this map to get a sense of where things are. Some of y’all are signed up for shifts, but I’m sure there will be a need for others to cut onions. Don’t be a stranger :)
If you still need lodging, check out the Fort Motel $60 nightly
Fort Benton is truly Beautiful.