Defense Attorney Claims “Egregious Discovery Violation” by the State
A line 3 Water Protector and veteran of both the U.S. Marine Corps and Army National Guard, Nicholas Engel (aka Bernie Santa), was found guilty on Friday, July 21, 2023 of fleeing law enforcement in a motor vehicle in Pennington County, Minnesota. Santa’s case was the first felony case of the #StopLine3 Movement to proceed to trial, although hundreds were criminally charged for protesting construction of a new Enbridge pipeline conveying tar sands oil — the dirtiest, most expensive, and most polluting oil in the world. The judge in the case refused to livestream the proceedings, despite widespread interest by the public and media.
Santa’s attorney, Claire Glenn of the Climate Defense Project, has indicated that the defense will appeal the verdict after sentencing, which is scheduled for September 7, 2023, at noon CST.
The case is State of Minnesota vs. Nicholas Norton Engel, case number 57-CR-21-729, in the Pennington County District Court.
As was reported in the legal journal Law360 on July 19, 2023, “jurors were let out early on the first day of the trial after a prosecutor on the case copped to withholding certain key evidence.” At that point, the Court was weighing the defense’s motion for sanctions against the State for what Glenn described as “an egregious discovery violation.” Although court rules and the United States and Minnesota Constitutions all require that the State disclose all evidence in advance of trial, it came to light mid-trial that the prosecutor had been withholding key witness statements from the defense.
The next day, the Court denied the motion to dismiss the case or exclude the State’s witnesses as sanctions, and the trial proceeded.
In their defense, Santa (who uses they/them pronouns) testified about the reasons they were afraid to stop on a deserted rural highway in the middle of the night, including not only fear of law enforcement generally, but of the police violence that occurred during Line 3 construction — plus their own prior experiences as a police academy graduate and later the victim of police violence.
Over 1,000 arrests were made in northern Minnesota by law enforcement during the construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands pipeline. During construction, Enbridge paid Minnesota law enforcement to police Water Protectors and pipeline protestors through a controversial escrow account managed by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.
Minnesota law enforcement agencies – including the DNR – ultimately received more than $8.6 million in Enbridge funds, and have been repeatedly accused of overreach and criticized for excessive surveillance and violent, military-style policing during Line 3 construction. The Pennington County Sheriff’s Office and Thief River Falls Police Department together received approximately $200,000 in Enbridge funding, a fact the Court prohibited Santa from sharing with the jury at trial.
Bernie was convicted on July 21, 2023, their 57th birthday.
“The state’s flagrant disregard for the law, the discovery rules and the prosecutor’s ethical and constitutional obligations — even as it prosecutes someone under the auspices of accountability — were exactly why this case should have been live streamed,” Glenn said. “The public deserves to know how the State is operating on their behalf.”
When asked for further comment following the jury’s verdict, Glenn stated: “All too often courts keep a thumb, or two, on the scale in favor of the State. But we remain hopeful that a higher court will recognize the fundamental unfairness in the prosecution of this case — both before and during trial — and exonerate Bernie.”
Martin Keller, Media Savant Communications, 612-220-6515, firstname.lastname@example.org, @mediasavant