LYNNWOOD — When five climate activists went on trial last week over their protest at a north Everett train yard, it was no ordinary misdemeanor case.
More than 70 spectators packed the small courtroom daily in Snohomish County District Court in Lynnwood. A half-dozen cameras taped the proceedings. Sympathetic media outlets and two documentary film crews chronicled the events, along with local reporters.
“This was one beautiful, peaceful protest about something that’s really important,” defense attorney Bob Goldsmith said afterward.
In the eyes of the law, it was a case of a couple of low-level misdemeanors: trespassing and blocking a train.
For the protestors and their supporters, it was about something much bigger.
They were trying to raise awareness about the consequences of rail shipments of oil and coal through western Washington. They warned of climate change, as well as the more immediate potential threat of exploding tank cars full of Bakken crude oil. Another goal for the group is stopping oil-by-rail terminals in the Northwest.
“There is hope to make the change that we need to the judicial system and to the political system and to global warming,” defendant Mike LaPointe, of Everett, said during the trial.
In that interest, more than two-dozen protesters had flocked to the Delta train yard near the Highway 529 bridge on the morning of Sept. 2, 2014. They carried banners with the messages “Cut oil trains, not conductors” and “Rise up!”
Protestors erected an 18-foot-high tripod across BNSF Railway tracks. Nearby, a long train of oil tank cars sat idle.
The five people who wound up arrested had been perched on the tripod or otherwise attached to it.
The accused spent the night in jail. They included Lapointe, a former independent congressional candidate who owns Firewheel Community Coffee House. Jackie Minchew, also from Everett, is a retired school teacher who has run for mayor and city council. The other three defendants were from Seattle: Abby Brockway, Liz Spoerri and Patrick Mazza.
Supporters began tweeting under the hashtags #delta5 and #climatetrial.
By Monday, it was time to make their case to a jury of their peers.
“These are unusual people who are here before the court on principle,” Goldsmith said later that week.
A key legal issue was debated with the jurors outside the courtroom: whether the judge would allow the accused to claim breaking the law was their only option, also known as a necessity defense.
Defense attorneys said in this case their clients had no choice but to trespass in hopes of saving the planet.
Deputy Snohomish County prosecuting attorney Adam Sturdivant reasoned otherwise: “There are still legal ways to effect change in this world.”
District Court Judge Anthony Howard said attorneys for the defendants failed to make the case for a necessity defense because there were other reasonable, legal means to draw attention to global warming.
“I am bound by legal precedent, no matter what my personal views may be on these topics,” Howard explained.
That meant that the jury wasn’t allowed to consider testimony from any of the expert witnesses for the defense, including physicians and a lobbyist for railroad workers.
The ruling prompted critical reaction from Tim DeChristopher, a Providence, Rhode Island-based activist and co-founder of the Climate Disobedience Center. He attended the trial and was tweeting from the courtroom.
“Judge now reading instructions to jury. Such instructions would train perfect Nazi soldiers,” he wrote.
The six-member jury found all five defendants guilty of trespassing, but acquitted them of blocking a train.
Howard sentenced the protesters to 90 days in jail. He suspended the sentence and gave credit for the day the defendants spent locked up after their arrests. Four were fined $200 plus court fees. An exception was made for Lapointe, who has had financial trouble.
Goldsmith said he was still conferring with others about whether to appeal the guilty verdicts. If they move forward, they would challenge the judge’s decision against allowing a necessity defense.
Despite disagreeing with the judge’s ruling, the protesters and their attorneys praised Howard’s handling of an otherwise small case that drew outsized publicity.
“I’d like to thank you for the very solid and grounded way that you conducted this trial,” Minchew told the judge.