FARMINGTON – In a little more than 5 minutes, a Franklin County jury found two Earth First! protesters guilty of failure to disperse after stopping a semi-truck last summer carrying a 140-foot wind turbine blade on its way to the Kibby Wind Power Project construction site.
Justice Michaela Murphy sentenced Willow Cordes-Eklund, 27, of Minneapolis, Minn., and Erik Gillard, 27, of Montpelier, Vt., to each serve 10 days in jail and pay a $500 fine for the Class D misdemeanor charge of failure to disperse. Murphy took issue with the fact that the tractor trailer driver, a private citizen who was not named in court, had been subjected to the brunt of the protesters’ actions on July 6, 2010. Those actions included 20 or so protesters stopping the truck on Route 27 and surrounding it as law enforcement officers attempted to keep the crowd away from truck. Gillard testified he climbed up to the cab to keep the driver calm and ask him to turn off the truck’s engine.
After Gillard was pulled down by an officer and handcuffed, Eklund scrambled underneath the truck’s trailer and chained herself to the trailer’s support using two bike locks. The driver was seen in video clips shown during the trial as being angry.
“He was upset and frightened,” Murphy told the defendants at sentencing. “He was simply a guy trying to do his work,” she said. “This situation quickly could have escalated out of control for the truck driver and protesters. It was a dangerous situation they created and he (driver) had no involvement in the political dispute.”
Justice Murphy’s 10-day jail sentence came as somewhat of a surprise, because following the guilty verdicts that came at noon today, Assistant District Attorney James Andrews had suggested a sentence for each of $500 fine and 100 hours of community service to be served in Maine. Defense attorneys Philip Worden and Lynne Williams suggested 100 hours was “a little steep” and recommended 75 hours instead.
Jurors took little time in convicting the pair. The jury began deliberations at 11:40 a.m. and knocked on the jury room door at nearly 11:46 a.m. to announce they had reached a verdict. Juror Raymond Richard of Wilton, said in that time two votes were taken. The first was 50-50 for conviction.
Richard said he told jurors: “They both had trouble telling the truth.” He said the officers were “just doing their jobs and trying to keep the situation safe” and he said watched the videos depicting the scene carefully. But, he had the most trouble with Gillard’s and Eklund’s testimony because they “weren’t answering the questions,” Andrews asked them on cross examination. Another vote was taken after a short discussion in which the other jurors had similar concerns as Richard did and all 12 members agreed to convict.
During the trial, three state police troopers and a U.S. Border Patrol agent testified and videos were viewed of the blockade scene take by cameras on two cruiser during the trial on Monday. Much of the focus by both the prosecutor and defense team had been on the officers’ response to the protesters’ actions. Specifically, that the officers did not use the word “disperse” as the defense contended was needed to convey the correct order for the protesters actions to be in violation of a failure to disperse. In videos and testimony, the officers said, “get back, stop and don’t move” to keep the protesters away from the truck.
“They knew what they were doing,” Andrews said of the protesters’ actions to create a blockade of a wind turbine blade that day. “Now we’re simply asking that they be held responsible.”
In negotiated plea agreements before the jury trial started yesterday, two others charged in the blockade entered pleas to a misdemeanor charge of failure to disperse. Ana Rodriguez, 30, of Florida and Courtney Butcher, 26, of Minnesota, had their attorney Barbara Chassie enter their pleas because they were not present. Rodriguez pleaded guilty to the Class E failure to disperse, agreeing to a 12-month deferred disposition in which she is to complete 50 hours of community service and refrain from further criminal conduct. If successful, the charge will be dismissed a year from now. Butcher pleaded no contest to the charge of Class E failure to disperse and received a $100 fine plus $60 in court fees.
Today, following sentencing Gillard was taken into custody. A supporter said as he was lead away in handcuffs, “You’re my hero.” A few others clapped. Eklund was granted a stay of execution until 6 p.m. Aug. 25, so she can return to Minnesota to start a summer job on Thursday as a chef at a children’s urban garden program.
Outside of court today, Eklund said she was surprised to be sentenced to 10 days in jail and how quickly the verdict was rendered. She added, “We were all focused on the interaction with police, but Justice Murphy was right for bringing up that concern for the truck driver.” Eklund, tearing up, said she plans on continuing her efforts of “being an environmental activist to protect wildlife.”
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