MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – The Minnesota Supreme Court rejected state prosecutors’ bid to shut down a climate “necessity defense” in the case of protesters who tried to disrupt oil pipelines, leaving jurors in the activists’ upcoming trial to decide whether their conduct was necessary to prevent environmental harm.
On Oct. 11, 2016, Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein, a retired attorney, planned to shut down two lines of an Enbridge petroleum pipeline at a valve station in the small, rural town of Leonard, Minnesota.
The shutdown was part of a plan coordinated by Climate Direct Action in Minnesota and four other states to disrupt five pipelines, stopping the flow of tar sands crude from Canada to the United States.
Johnston and Klapstein were each charged with felony criminal damage to property, aiding and abetting felony criminal damage to property, gross misdemeanor trespassing, and aiding and abetting gross misdemeanor trespassing. The charges carry a potential maximum penalty of over 20 years in jail and fines up to $40,000.
In April, the Minnesota Court of Appeals granted the activists permission to use a “necessity defense” in their criminal case, a defense that argues the two should not be held liable for actions that prevented a greater harm.
Minnesota has opposed the activists’ reliance on the necessity defense. At a hearing to address this objection, the activists said the defense related to their “individual perceptions of the necessity of their actions in preventing environmental harm caused by the use of fossil fuels, particularly the tar sands oil carried by the pipeline with which they interfered,” the 2-1 appeals court decision states.
Prosecutors appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court but it declined Tuesday to hear the case, meaning the case will go to trial this fall.
Chief Justice Lorie Gildea’s denial of the appeal also means the defense will be able to present evidence about climate change to support their claim that their actions were justified by the threat of environmental harm.
Climate Direct Action, the group behind the pipeline protests, said in a news release that the trial could mark the first time a U.S. jury hears a necessity defense of direct action on climate change.
Johnston said in a statement that the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision not to hear prosecutors’ appeal means the activists might get to make a “real difference in how the public and the legal system respond to the overwhelming threats of climate change.”
“It’s been a long road, but we’re almost there – and not a second too soon,” Johnston said.
Klapstein also said she is “very happy” that the state’s high court chose not to review the appeals court’s decision to allow the necessity defense.
“Our right to present and the jury’s right to hear the facts about the ongoing and accelerating climate catastrophe have been upheld, and we look forward to presenting this evidence to the jury,” Klapstein said in a statement.
The trial date has not been set but it is expected to happen later this year, as soon as October.