NEWPORT CITY – The attorneys in the Lowell wind trespass case whittled down a pool of potential jurors Thursday morning, finding that some had strong opinions about wind power in Vermont.
But in the end, after hours of questioning, huddled meetings at the bench and several discussions in chambers, the court emerged with 13 jurors ready to hear the case of six protesters next month.
Judge Martin Maley in Orleans Superior Court – Criminal Division advised the room full of juror candidates that they didn’t have to be ignorant of the trespassing case or have no opinions about the wind project in Lowell.
“The case is fairly high profile,” Maley said. “Many of you folks read about it. … That’s OK. What we are looking for are open minds.”
The jury draw Thursday came four days after other protesters blocked a truck carrying wind turbine parts to the Lowell wind site on Monday, becoming a top news story in Vermont.
Orleans County Deputy State’s Attorney Sarah Baker asked if anyone knew about the wind project and the protests. Nearly everyone of the juror candidates nodded.
Maley stepped in to help. “Does anybody ‘not’ have any knowledge?” he asked, to laughter.
Several juror candidates were outspoken in favor or opposition to wind projects. Others only offered their opinions when asked directly, with most supporting wind projects.One, from Craftsbury, spoke up to say he opposed wind projects. He also said that civil disobedience isn’t just breaking the law. Like African Americans sitting at an all-white lunch counter in the South to fight racism, protests can be justified, he said.
“I would have trouble with it,” he said about being impartial. He said he didn’t want to be on the jury.
Most of the nearly 35 who were questioned said they liked wind power or did not have an opinion about it.
“I feel that we have to change direction,” said one juror candidate. “That’s why I support wind power. … I still think I can sit here and look into both sides.”
Others said they supported freedom of speech and protesting.
Many who spoke up were likely challenged as jurors by either defense attorney Kristina Michelsen or Baker and removed from the jury pool.
One elderly gentleman, Carl Nelson, drew laughter when asked if he knew Don Nelson, a wind opponent and neighbor to the wind project site. Carl Nelson is Don’s cousin.
Another man said he is a farmer, knows Don Nelson well and would be biased against the charges.
The defense is expected to try to raise reasonable doubt about who owns the wind project site where the six protesters stood on the ridgeline to block construction equipment on Dec. 5. They claim that they had permission from Don Nelson to be there on land that is leased by developer Green Mountain Power for the wind project.
The six, plus a reporter, were arrested and charged with criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor charge. They declined an offer of Diversion, which would clear their records, saying they want their case to go to trial. The reporter, The Chronicle Publisher Chris Braithwaite, goes to trial separately.
Potential jurors didn’t know most of the six protesters. They are Ryan Gillard, 23, of Plainfield, Dr. Ron Holland, 67, of Irasburg, Suzanna Jones, 50, of Walden, Anne Morse, 48, of Craftsbury Common, David Rogers, 69, of Craftsbury and Eric Wallace-Senft, 46, of Woodbury.
Some jurors knew Dr. Holland, who is an emergency room doctor at North Country Hospital. Morse is a professor at Sterling College in Craftsbury, but no one among the jurors who were questioned by attorneys knew her.
Juror candidates were more familiar with some of the local law enforcement officers scheduled to testify about the arrests. One juror candidate was taken out of the jury pool after he said he had heard things that weren’t positive about a deputy sheriff.
A handful of jury candidates had a family member or neighbor working at the wind site. Some of those were removed from the pool.
Another juror candidate, a former corrections officer, said she did not appreciate how some in prison protested to get better treatment. She was taken out of the pool.
Both attorneys questioned the first 24 jury candidates and went into chambers with Maley and the six protesters to raise challenges about some jurors.
They emerged after a half hour to ask 11 jurors to step down from the pool. Most of those who were taken out had either taken strong opinions about wind either way or had strong opinions about law enforcement.
After adding another 11 candidates to the selection pool, both attorneys asked questions again.
Michelsen began to ask more direct questions about wind power to each juror who she said was quiet during general questioning.
Interestingly, most of those supported wind power when asked directly.
“I tend to enjoy it,” said one, calling turbines “a sign of progress.”
Another said that when he heard that protesters blocked traffic, “any sign of support was quickly gone.”
“I like watching turbines,” said another candidate.
Another said she didn’t mind turbines on ridgelines.
Michelsen was beginning to question even those juror candidates that had not been challenged after the first round.
Maley stopped her.
After more than four hours and a short lunch break, the attorneys had narrowed the field to 14. However, one announced at the last minute that she had a doctor’s appointment that she didn’t realize conflicted with the Aug. 15 trial.
She was removed, and the attorneys agreed to go with 13 jurors.
All 13 will hear the trial. At the end of arguments and before the judge gives the case to the jury, one will be selected by lottery as an alternate and dismissed.
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