Offering some hope that "reality" will prevail in a political climate seemingly bent on climate destruction, a Washington state jury on Wednesday failed to convict activist Ken Ward on two felony counts stemming from an act of civil disobedience against the fossil fuel industry.
The Climate Disobedience Center, which Ward co-founded, declared the mistrial "a resounding recognition of the threat of climate change," noting that one or more jurors refused to convict Ward on charges of sabotage and burglary for breaking into and shutting down a Kinder Morgan pipeline near Anacortes, Washington last year. Alternately, they were persuaded by his argument that he had acted out of necessity, in defense of the planet.
According to the center,
Ward's defense consisted exclusively of his motivation to confront the threat of climate change, and the defense did not contest a single piece of evidence brought by the prosecution. Several exhibits demonstrating climate science and impacts and the role of civil disobedience in societal change were permitted as evidence. Ward himself was the only witness called by the defense. The jury deliberated while looking at charts demonstrating the dramatic increase of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and the impacts of sea-level rise to Skagit County.
"This trial was about climate change," said Emily Johnston, who also took part in the October 2016 coordinated action that shut down tar sands pipelines along the U.S.-Canada border. "The prosecution presented only information about what Ken did on October 11, and Ken and the defense presented only information about climate change, so the only decision that the jury was making was which story mattered more. And the story of the climate crisis won."
Activist Leonard Higgins, who faces trial for shutting off Spectra Energy's Express tar sands pipeline in Montana as part of the same action, said he's "excited to see that the jury recognized the integrity, honor, and patriotism of Ken Ward, and recognized that what he did was done for all of us."
Ward was the first of the "valve turners" to appear in court and the trial was said to have "far-reaching implications for the widening pipeline protest movement and the intensifying crackdown against it," particularly in light of the fierce mobilizations expected after U.S. President Donald Trump's recent executive orders advancing the controversial Keystone XL (KXL) and Dakota Access (DAPL) pipelines.
As Ward himself explained after the decision, "In five hours, the jury was unable to decide that with all of the evidence against me, including the video of me closing the valve, that this was a crime. I didn't contest a single piece of the evidence, only presented my story and evidence of catastrophic climate change. This is a tremendous outcome."
As it stands, there will be a conference next week to determine if a new trial will be scheduled. But as Steve Kent with the Climate Disobedience Center explained to Common Dreams, the fact of the mistrial gives "an indication that one or more jurors accepted the argument that the actions were taken to prevent climate harm, and so weren't culpable. That's important legally and will have ramifications."
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Wednesday's mistrial was celebrated widely across the climate movement.
Another way to describe this: the jury refused to convict. Will surely happen more & more. Reality has a way of winning. #ClimateTrial
— Emily Johnston (@enjohnston) February 1, 2017
— Tim DeChristopher (@dechristopher) February 1, 2017
— Bill McKibben (@billmckibben) February 1, 2017
Not only does this ruling bode well for the future "valve turner" trials, but it also could impact other activists who plan to confront the Trump administration with increasingly direct civil disobedience.
"The failure of the prosecution's case shows that public opinion is shifting about the need for direct action to solve the climate crisis," said Kelsey Skaggs, an attorney with the Climate Defense Project, which provided legal support to Ward alongside the Civil Liberties Defense Center. "With our political leadership failing us, we need more courageous activists like Ken to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and set an example of how normal people can effect change."
Watch Ward's testimony below: