Five activists who blocked BNSF Railway tracks in Everett were convicted of trespass in a trial that defense attorneys used to showcase the environmental and health threats posed by oil and coal trains.
Five Washington activists who blocked BNSF Railway tracks were convicted of trespass Friday in a Snohomish County District Court trial that defense attorneys used to showcase the environmental and health threats posed by trains transporting oil and coal.
A six-person jury reached guilty verdicts on misdemeanor trespass charges for all five defendants. The defendants were found not guilty of the additional charge of obstructing or trying to delay trains.
Their protest, which lasted for eight hours, unfolded Sept. 2, 2014, on a BNSF rail yard in Everett as they sought to draw attention to the risks of coal and oil trains that travel through the state.
Defendant Abigail Brockway positioned herself some 20 feet off the ground on top of a metal tripod while the four others — Patrick Mazza, Jackie Minchew, Michael Lapointe and Liz Spoerri — chained themselves to the structure’s legs.
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The trespassing count carries a sentence of up to 90 days in jail.
The defendants have already spent one day in jail, and they received a suspended sentence for the other 89 days as well as two years of probation. Four of the defendants also must pay $553 in fines and fees, according to Bob Goldsmith, an attorney for Brockway.
Their protest, at a site called the Delta yard, sought to highlight the risks of the fossil-fuel train traffic and galvanize support for curbing the shipments and improving rail safety.
“Direct action is a kind of shock to the system, it is a piece of dissonance. It is a friction … that focuses attention,” said Mazza, who participated in his own defense during the four-day trial that began Monday.
The Northwest has seen a surge in fossil-fuel rail traffic during the past five years, and proposals to build two port terminals to export coal as well as a new generation of terminals to offload oil carried by train have spurred opposition from a coalition of environmentalists working to curb climate change.
Railroad officials say that BNSF is obligated by the federal government to carry all regulated products, including coal and crude oil.
Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman, said the rail-yard operations were shut down during the protest. While there is a time and place for discussing climate solutions, he said, “trespassing and putting one’s safety and others at risk is dangerous and unlawful.”
During the trial, dozens of supporters of the “Delta 5” crowded into the Snohomish County courtroom in Lynnwood.
Defense attorneys called a climate scientist, a physician, a rail-safety specialist and a researcher from an environmental-policy think tank to help them make their cases against oil and coal trains.
Their last witness was Mike Elliott, a former BNSF employee and whistleblower who last year was awarded $1.25 million by a federal jury in Tacoma that concluded he was targeted and terminated in 2011 after reporting serious safety violations to federal authorities.
The testimony was intended to buttress the legal case for what’s known as a “necessity defense.” That means that defendants had largely exhausted all legal means of protest, and that civil disobedience was necessary to address the much greater harms posed by climate change and oil trains.
“In the end this country was founded on protest,’’ said Goldsmith, the attorney representing Brockway. “At a certain point in time, at a certain point of history, we are going to argue that on that date … there was no reasonable alternative for that small group of people to get their message across.”
But Judge Anthony Howard rejected those arguments, saying the attorneys had not made an adequate case that the defendants had exhausted legal means of trying to bring about changes in climate policy and railroad safety.
“Quite frankly they (the defendants) are tireless advocates whom we need in this society to prevent the kind of catastrophic effects that we see coming and our politicians are ineffectually addressing,” Howard said.
“But that does not mean that this court will engage in politics and violate its obligation to adhere to legal precedents.”
After making that ruling, Howard told the jurors to disregard the testimony from the five experts that testified on behalf of the defense.
In his closing arguments, Adam Sturdivant, a Snohomish County deputy prosecutor, said the defendants, in testimony in court, had acknowledged that they had trespassed, and that their actions “garnered the press they wanted.”