NEWPORT CITY – An Orleans County jury found six anti-wind protesters guilty Wednesday evening of trespassing during a blockade last December on the Lowell wind site.
The verdict by the 10 women and three men on the jury – after four hours of deliberation and a one-day trial – dropped like a silent bombshell into a courtroom filled with the friends, family and fellow protesters of the six defendants.
The protesters who called themselves the Lowell Six and who hoped to win their case and promote their cause in the courtroom listened as the jury foreman announced that all six were guilty and all of the 12 jurors said they supported the verdict.
The verdict capped a day of small dramas and dry testimony about property lines with a bit of humor tossed in.
A young prosecutor, Deputy State’s Attorney Sarah Baker, sought to prove that Green Mountain Power’s easement and lease for the Lowell mountain ridgeline meant that GMP had control of the property and the right to call police to remove the protesters Dec. 5, 2011. “This is my second trial ever,” Baker said after the verdict.
The defense, led by eloquent Kristina Michelsen, sought to poke holes and raise a case of reasonable doubt in whether GMP had the right to have the six protesters arrested. She had no comment immediately after the verdict at 8 p.m., saying she had to talk to her clients.
The protesters, including Dr. Ron Holland of Irasburg, an emergency department doctor at North Country Hospital, now could face sentencing and a restitution hearing. Misdemeanor criminal trespassing carries minor financial penalties. Michelsen is expected to file motions before a new hearing will be held, Judge Martin Maley said.
The other protesters are Anne Morse, Eric Wallace-Senft, Suzanne Jones, Ryan Gillard and David Rogers.
They and fellow protesters, including several arrested last week at the most recent protest on the ridgeline, had hoped to have a jubilant press conference after the trial.
After the verdict, Rogers said that the group is “very disappointed.” They expect to have more comment in the future.
They each were given a warning by law enforcement that if they return to the wind site they will be immediately arrested, he said.
Holland took the stand in his own defense Wednesday, saying that he knew exactly where he wanted to protest on the ridgeline – within a disputed strip of land about 160 to 180 feet wide that GMP’s neighbors Don and Shirley Nelson say belongs to them. Holland said that he had permission from the Nelsons to be on their unposted property, despite posted signs put up by GMP on the site.
Holland choked up with emotion on the stand. He said that he used pieces of twine 169 feet long to help himself and fellow protesters stay within that disputed territory during several times when they were on the crane path of the wind project.
“We were there to protest GMP’s taking of Don Nelson’s property,” Holland said.
Rogers also took the stand to say the same. Baker stipulated that the rest of the protesters were prepared to offer the same testimony.
But Don Nelson, a hostile witness for the state, said on the stand that he signed an agreement in 2002 with owner Ben Wileman, who has leased it to GMP.
Nelson said Wileman threatened to take him to court.
“Rather than go to court, we signed the agreement,” Nelson said.
He has since taken Wileman and GMP to court over the disputed land. The judge had ruled before the trial that details of the lawsuit could not be presented to the jury. But the jury wanted to know more about it.
The issue of property rights and disputes dominated the testimony in the trial.
And the jury seemed to reach to the heart of the case early in their deliberations.
The jury gave a hint of the direction of their thinking at 5 p.m., within an hour of receiving the case from Maley in Orleans Superior Court – Criminal Division.
They came out to ask two questions.
They asked who, under Vermont case law, has control of disputed property until the dispute is settled
And they wanted to know if there is a lawsuit already under way over the disputed property in question.
Maley, speaking while the jury was still in the jury room, said the jury has focused on questions that are confusing to lawyers.
He told the jury to go back and do the best they could. He said that there was no more evidence to present in the case and he could not give them more guidance.
Michelsen put surveyor Paul Hannon on the stand who had looked at the property line between Wileman and the Nelsons but had not done a recorded survey.
A survey that outlines the agreement between Wileman and the Nelsons was the most recent recorded survey in the land records at the time of the protest.
Baker put a surveyor with Blais Horizon on the stand but wasn’t allowed to use him as an expert witness – a result of restrictions that both attorneys sought to limit the scope of the trial in advance.
Hannon said that his work indicated a “bulge” in the property line that allowed Wileman to claim more of Nelson’s property – which now includes the site of Turbine Six on the ridgeline and a section of the crane path of the Lowell wind project.
The trial featured a flurry of maps, graphs and aerial photographs, and plenty of confusion at times about which map or photograph was supposed to be presented to a witness.
After Baker had rested her case, Michelsen made a motion for acquittal.
Maley said that the case presented by the state was somewhat confusing but Baker had – given in the best light – made her case beyond a reasonable doubt and let the trial continue.
Chief Deputy Phil Brooks of the Orleans County Sheriff’s Department identified the six protesters in the court room and talked about how he and his force conducted the peaceful arrest on the morning of Dec. 5.
He said it wasn’t the first time that protesters had tried to be arrested on the ridgeline.
Holland had called him one time before asking to be arrested, but Brooks – off duty at the time – told the state police about it.
“It was kind of an odd thing. Not too many people call and want to be arrested.”
Charles Pughe, project manager of the site called Kingdom Community Wind, said he “cleaned out several stores” in the area buying up every “Posted” sign he could last fall. Initially the signs were intended to warn hikers and hunters to stay away from the construction zone on the ridgeline, but then they were directed at protesters, he said.
Nelson gave “yes” and “no” answers to Baker at first and then had trouble with a document she asked him to read.
He admitted to Maley that he didn’t bring his reading glasses, drawing a laugh from the judge.
Hannon said he did not make marks or “blaze” trees when he was doing his pre-survey work for Nelson. But he said if he had, those trees would have been cut down already by GMP – which drew amused chuckles from wind protesters in the audience.
By the end of the day, there were no laughs or banter in the court room as the somber jury announced their verdict.
Several of the protesters who were there for support Wednesday now face their own citations to appear in court on trespassing charges in September.
Rogers said that the protesters expect to be back in court in a few weeks.