Prosecutors Drop Charges Against Activists Who Blocked A Coal Freighter

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Several hundred activists crowded the Bristol County courthouse in Fall River expecting a trial that put the issue of global warming in front of a jury.

Two men who had used their lobster boat to block a giant tanker delivering coal to the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset were hoping to convince jurors that their crimes were justified by the need to avert catastrophic climate change.

It was going to be the first use of the "necessity defense" by climate activists. The defendants didn't get what they expected, but they won their case anyway.

'The Only Thing One Can Do Is Put Yourself In The Way'

Forty jurors were waiting in the wings. The defense had expert witnesses on call, like renowned NASA climatologist James Hansen. And the court and hallway were crowded with Quakers, ministers and bishops in white collars and supporters from around the country.

"What's goes on today, if it goes on, is a trial," Judge Joseph Macy said.

There had been no "if" last Friday. The trial was still on, by all signs. And Bristol District Attorney Sam Sutter had not objected to a "necessity defense," which to defendant Ken Ward was as clear as the sky used to be.

"We just found out this summer that the West Antarctic ice shelf is in collapse — nothing we can do about it; 10 feet of sea level rise," Ward said. "In that context, it seems to me the only thing one can do is put yourself in the way."

In Ward's case, he put himself in the way of a 688-foot tanker a year ago last May. Just across the Taunton River from Fall River, the tanker was coming into the Brayton Point Power Station with 40,000 tons of coal that Ward describes as product from blown-up mountaintops in Appalachia.

The defendants said that power station is the biggest or second biggest emitter of carbon gas in New England, New Jersey and New York.

That's where the little lobster boat they augustly named "Henry David T" comes in, along with co-defendant Jay O'Hara.

"Ken and I both got on that boat and stood in front of this freighter because we need to stop burning coal immediately," O'Hara said.

They dropped anchor, raised a flag that said "coal is stupid" and kept the ship out of its berth for hours.

'I'm Definitely Disappointed'

They were charged with disturbing the peace, unsafe operation, failing to avoid a collision and conspiracy. Here was a chance to confront and convince a jury of the moral issues.

Here was a chance to inspire similar acts of civil disobedience. What's more, the trial would take place two weeks before what's being billed as the biggest demonstration for climate action ever, in New York and in front of the U.N.

Then came the surprise.

"Your honor we have an agreement for the court's consideration," announced prosecutor Robert Kidd.

The district attorney was dropping the most serious charge of conspiracy and reducing the others to simple civil infractions. No fines, no penalties. Just restitution of $2,000 apiece the defendants agreed to pay the town of Somerset for police overtime involving the blockade. And suddenly, it was over.

Defense lawyers thanked the district attorney. They said justice had been done. But amidst the celebration, Ward had conflicting emotions.

"I'm definitely disappointed," Ward said. "I mean I think we had a great opportunity to here put climate, coal burning on trial. But there will be other opportunities."

Then, in perhaps the biggest surprise, came the curtain call for the district attorney himself. He said he had balanced the concerns of Somerset taxpayers with the interests of their children and the world's children.

"Climate change is one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced," Sutter said. "In my humble opinion the political leadership on this issue has been gravely lacking."

Responding to the cheers, the district attorney pulled out a copy of Rolling Stone with a feature article on global warming, then got a bigger cheer.

"I certainly will be in New York in two weeks," he said. "How's that?"

To that grand rally, add one marcher. Drop four charges. Case closed.

This article was originally published on September 08, 2014.

This segment aired on September 9, 2014.

Headshot of David Boeri

David Boeri Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.



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