After Court Denies Right to Present Full Defense, Climate Activist Convicted in Pipeline Shutdown Case

Climate Defense Project

Fort Benton, MT

November 22, 2017

Fort Benton, MT — After a judge denied his right to present a full defense, climate activist Leonard Higgins was convicted today of criminal trespass and criminal mischief for shutting off a tar sands pipeline in Montana last year. His action was part of a coordinated “Shut It Down” protest across four states that temporarily shut off the flow of tar sands oil from Canada into the United States. After the judge issued a controversial pre-trial ruling that barred Mr. Higgins from presenting evidence about climate science and the ineffectiveness of government regulation of fossil fuels, Mr. Higgins was able to make only a limited presentation to the jury, which convicted him of charges that carry a maximum sentence of 10 years.

The prosecution’s case focused on purported damages that Mr. Higgins’ protest allegedly cost the pipeline company, Spectra Energy (Spectra has since been purchased by Enbridge). Such pipelines have become a focus of active opposition due to their harmful effects on the climate and the great risk of spills that they present. Defense witness Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, an expert in pipeline mechanics from Cornell University, testified that Mr. Higgins observed safety protocols and that the pipeline was shut down in a safe manner. However, Mr. Higgins was prohibited from presenting a climate necessity defense. Had he been permitted to present the defense, he would have called additional expert witnesses and shown the jury evidence of the climate change impacts of the pipeline, the lack of effective government regulation to address the climate crisis, and the proven effectiveness of civil disobedience in addressing the problem.

Mr. Higgins was represented by attorneys Herman Watson of Bozeman, Montana, Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, and Kelsey Skaggs of the Climate Defense Project.

“We’re disappointed that Mr. Higgins was denied the opportunity to present a full defense and explain to the jury why he took his courageous action,” Ms. Skaggs said. “Because of the fossil fuel industry’s enormous influence, activists fighting for the future are being convicted while the real climate criminals walk free.”

The limitation of Mr. Higgins’s defense is in line with recent efforts by the federal and state governments to criminalize dissent and to impose harsh penalties on non-violent protesters. Despite this trend, however, activists have seen recent successes in court: last month, in a major precedent, Mr. Higgins’s fellow “Shut It Down” activists won the right to present a climate necessity defense in Minnesota (the case is currently on pre-trial appeal), and a court in Spokane, Washington reached a similar decision.

Mr. Higgins is set to be sentenced on January 2. His attorneys indicated that he intends to appeal his conviction and the denial of his climate necessity defense.

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