FORT BENTON, Mont. (CN) – A jury found a climate-change activist guilty of criminal trespass and felony criminal mischief for his part in last year’s four-state effort to shut down pipelines carrying tar-sands oil from Canada.
At midday Wednesday after an hour of deliberation, six women and six men from Montana’s Choteau County reached a verdict supporting the state’s contention that Leonard Higgins’ actions on Oct. 16, 2016, damaged more than the few chains that locked the valves controlling the Enbridge pipeline near Big Sandy, Montana.
Higgins and four other activists participated in a coordinated effort to simultaneously shut down oil pipelines in Washington state, Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota. On that October morning, protest organizers made phone calls to the pipeline companies 15 minutes before the activists were to manually close the valves, allowing pipeline control centers to stop the flow of tar-sands oil themselves. In each case, a few men accompanied the activists to film the action, and once they had closed the valves, the activists peaceably surrendered to law enforcement.
In his brief closing arguments, Choteau County prosecutor Steve Gannon told the jury the cost of the damage Higgins caused should be more than the $938 to replace the chains and actuator cover. It should include the labor and mileage that Enbridge employees racked up while trying to confirm that no other vandalism had occurred, Gannon said.
“This is not about whether Mr. Higgins is a nice guy – he is a nice guy. It’s about what he did that day,” Gannon said. “He admitted to cutting the chains and damaging the actuator. What he doesn’t realize is what it cost the company in time.”
On Tuesday, Mike Graham, the regional manager for Enbridge, provided some approximate totals of employee salaries and how much time he and his technicians spent that day trying to assess the problem, in addition to the distance traveled by company trucks.
Gannon said those costs easily pushed the total damages above $1,500, which is Montana’s break point between misdemeanor and felony criminal mischief.
In his closing statements, defense attorney Herman Watson said it wasn’t right to add labor costs because Graham and his technicians would have been paid whether Higgins had closed the valve or not. Watson told the jury that Montana law defines “loss” related to criminal mischief as “the full replacement cost of property taken, destroyed, harmed or otherwise devalued.”
“What was taken? Nothing. What was destroyed? Three chains and an actuator. What was harmed or devalued? Same thing,” Watson said. “Wait a minute – labor costs? Mileage? That’s not in the law. We disagree on this, because it’s not in the law.”
On Tuesday, the defense objected to the approximate tally of Enbridge’s business costs because documents verifying the amounts hadn’t been provided. Choteau County District Judge Daniel Boucher overruled.
Earlier on Wednesday, Higgins took the stand in his own defense. The Portland, Oregon, resident described how he studied pipeline safety to ensure his actions and those of other activists would not damage the pipeline or endanger people.
He said he accepted he would be breaking the law by trespassing onto Enbridge property but intended to damage only the chains locking the valves and the property enclosure.
After the call alerting the pipeline company had been made, and after he noted that the flow of oil had stopped, Higgins said he shut the valve even though it was unnecessary. Then he waited an hour for deputies to arrive and arrest him.
“A large part of this was symbolic, to bring attention to the problem of climate change,” Higgins said. “I felt responsible to stand up for what’s right. Sometimes, what’s right isn’t necessarily what’s legal. And that’s a really hard conclusion to come to.”
Prior to the trial, Boucher refused to allow Higgins to use a compulsion or necessity defense, where Higgins would have said the imminent danger posed by climate change justified his actions. Gannon repeatedly objected to Higgins’ testimony anytime “climate change” was mentioned. But before Higgins left the stand, Boucher asked him about his intent, startling the defense.
During a break, defense attorney Lauren Riggins said she might include that in an appeal.
“It seemed like (the judge) opened the door and was attempting to create a stronger record for himself based on the denial of the necessity defense without letting us put up any testimony to bolster that defense,” Riggins said.
Judges in Washington and North Dakota also rejected the necessity defense, but the Minnesota judge will allow it. That trial is tentatively scheduled for December.
Higgins’ sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 2.
Surrounded by 50 supporters outside the courthouse, Higgins said he was disappointed that his testimony was limited.
“I was surprised I didn’t get to talk about climate change at all. It was important to show what my intent was and what my state of mind was. But anytime I came anywhere close to talking about climate-change science – which scares me more than the verdict today – I was stopped from speaking,” Higgins said.