On Monday night I laid awake all night long in an uncomfortable hotel bed waiting for my alarm to go off at 6am. I was obsessively ruminating on the sentencing presentation I would give to the Chouteau County District Court in Fort Benton, MT on Tuesday morning on behalf of Valve Turner Leonard Higgins. All night long I went over the law, my evidence, what I would say to the judge. I saw Leonard’s partner’s face in my ‘dreams’ asking me to protect Leonard and keep him from jail, I saw his daughter and his grandchildren asking me why he would be sent to prison for trying to save their future.
I’ve known Leonard for several years now; CLDC represented him in Washington for the Break Free mass protest of bomb trains and climate change, he has been a consistent donor to our work and attends almost every CLDC event we host in Oregon, and we visit with each other often at other climate conferences and events. He is a wonderfully kind man with integrity and courage.
Now, he was facing 10 years in prison for attempting to shut down an Enbridge tar sands oil pipeline fueling the US and global addiction to the highly polluting oil from the Alberta tar sands—a global mining atrocity whose gruesome devastation can be seen from outer space.
I did not want to be responsible for Leonard (or any of our clients) to be sentenced to prison or to be forced into debt through court restitution obligations (Enbridge was seeking over $200k from Leonard for the $937 in damage). And so, at 10:30 a.m. the sentencing commenced and it was my job to convey to Judge Bouchet why Leonard should not go to prison and why history will view him and his comrades as heroes.
When I had finished my sentencing argument, Leonard gave an emotional explanation of what drove a law abiding 65 year old man to break the law. It was riveting and sad given the dire threats facing the planet and the willful ignorance and inaction of politicians and profiteering corporations. Now was the time that the Judge would pronounce the sentence—but instead the Judge informed the packed courtroom that we would take a lunch break and reconvene at 1pm to learn Leonard’s fate. Cliffhanger! Suffice it to say, I did not eat lunch at that time, my green tea and adrenaline began to subside, and I had already bitten all my fingernails so all I could do was wait….
Back in court at 1pm Judge Bouchet began with ‘I will defer imposition of this sentence for a period of 3 years….,” no fines, no jail time at all….I took in a deep breath and realized for the first time that I had stopped breathing for a few minutes. A wave of relief swept over me and I looked over at Leonard to see if he realized what had just been said—I think I leaned over and whispered “no jail.”
Then the judge turned to restitution to Enbridge: the corporation had originally asserted that Leonard had caused over $200,000 in damages and economic harm, then at trial the Enbridge representative catalogued $3700 in damages, and finally, prior to sentencing, Enbridge and the State demanded over $26,000 in restitution that Leonard would have to pay to a $65 billion dollar multinational corporation responsible for gravely exacerbating perilous climate change that threatened the continued existence of life as we know it. Finally Judge Bouchet said, ‘I find restitution in the amount of $3,755.00.’ This was another victory!
After over 20 years of defending activists, it never gets easier, but I know of no other pursuit in life that I would rather have than this one. I will sleep well tonight!
The success of the CLDC in defending activists is part experience, part extremely hard work, and part genuine commitment and loyalty to our clients and their cause to end climate change and make the world a better place. There is no other organization like it in the U.S., and more than ever before, we are being asked to help activists around the country who are facing similar threats to their liberty and ability to keep fighting the good fight.
CLDC represents these frontlines activists for free—we believe if an activist risks their liberty in a strategic way for a good cause, they should not be individually responsible for compensating their lawyer for her work. Our hope is that the campaign, the community, or the movement as a whole would support our work on their behalf.
Defending the Valve Turners isn’t over. We are still defending Emily Johnston & Annette Klapstein in Minnesota where the Court has granted the necessity defense. We are also appealing the Courts’ denial of the necessity defense in Washington, North Dakota & Montana.
If you are an activist, or supporter of activists—maybe you have limitations that keep you from being active in a campaign or from risking arrest—we need your financial support now. Even if you are limited in the capacity to be on the frontlines right now, your donation is essential for our ability to defend your friends and comrades.
Will you make a donation of $25, $50, $100, $250 or more to help us keep fighting for the Valve Turners and other frontline activists?
The movement needs strong lawyers and we need your support now. Please donate as generously as you can because you never know when you might be calling the CLDC to defend you or someone you love.
In love and solidarity,
Help support our work defending the Valve Turners and fighting for the necessity defense by becoming a member or making a donation today!
If you would prefer to donate by check you can mail donations to: Civil Liberties Defense Center, 1430 Willamette St., #359, Eugene, Oregon 97401.
The Civil Liberties Defense Center (CLDC) is a non-governmental 501c3 nonprofit, supported by individual and community contributions, donations to the CLDC are tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law. Our tax ID number is 58-2670951.