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Surprise acquittal in Enbridge pipeline protesters' case

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Defendant Emily Johnston speaks outside Clearwater County courthouse.
Defendant Emily Johnston (center) speaks outside Clearwater County courthouse, with co-defendant Ben Joldersma, left, and his daughter, and former NASA scientist James Hansen after she was acquitted along with two other defendants.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Updated: 5:15 p.m. | Posted: 12:57 p.m.

An unusual and high-profile trial in northwestern Minnesota came to a surprisingly quick end Tuesday when a state judge acquitted three climate activists of damaging an oil pipeline. 

Both the prosecution and defense cases fizzled, leaving disappointment on both sides. 

The case dates back to October 11, 2016, when Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston used bolt cutters to cut through chains and padlocks at a valve site for two oil pipelines in Clearwater County. 

Then Ben Joldersma called Enbridge, the pipelines' owner, and warned the company to shut them down, or they would. And he live-streamed it on Facebook. 

Emily Johnston, one of the three defendants in the Clearwater County case.
Emily Johnston, one of the three defendants in the Clearwater County case, waiting for an interview outside the American Legion club.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

"I'm calling to inform you, that when I hang up this phone, we are closing the valves," he said in a Facebook live stream. "Please shut down these two pipelines now, for safety and for our future."

Clearwater County attorney Al Rogalla played the video for a jury Tuesday morning. He showed the bolt cutters, and the cut chains and padlocks, as evidence. He'd charged the three defendants with felonies; two of them for damage to a critical public service. 

After Rogalla rested his case, defense attorneys asked the judge to acquit the three defendants. They argued the state had not sufficiently proven the defendants had caused criminal damage to the pipelines. 

Annette Klapstein (front) is a retired attorney.
Annette Klapstein (front) is a retired attorney, knowing that the legal consequences for her action could have been years in prison and a high financial penalty.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

And to everyone's surprise, state district court judge Robert Tiffany agreed. 

After, on the steps of the courthouse, Annette Klapstein, 66, said she was ecstatic. But the retired attorney from the Seattle area also said she's disappointed they didn't get to tell their story to a Clearwater County jury. 

"We did everything in our power to make sure that this was a safe action and we did this to protect our children and all of your children from the devastating effects of climate change," Klapstein said. 

The activists were prepared to present a rare argument called the necessity defense — that their actions were justified to avert the greater harm of climate change. 

Only a few climate activists have been allowed to argue the defense to a jury before. 

Fellow defendant Emily Johnston, 52, also was ambivalent. She escaped a potential prison term of several years, but was willing to take that risk to put on the kind of trial they'd prepared.

"We did this action two, almost two years ago to the day, Thursday will be the second anniversary, because the problem of climate change is so urgent that we have to start shutting down tar sands pipelines down now," Johnston said.

Defense attorney Lauren Regan had lined up several well known expert witnesses, including a former NASA climate scientist to help make that case. Last week, though, the judge barred expert witness testimony on behalf of the defense. Regan said they had been relishing the prospect of that testimony. 

Michael Foster, left, and Dr. James Hanson, a former NASA scientist.
Michael Foster, left, and Dr. James Hanson, a former NASA scientist, who came to Bagley to speak as an expert witness about the threats of climate change in support of the defendants' case.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

"We, of course, were incredibly excited to put on what would have been the dream necessity defense for the climate movement," Regan said. "Our experts were phenomenal. And you know if we couldn't convince rural community members who doubted the existence of climate change with this group of people we would have really had an uphill battle."

During jury selection, many potential jurors were either skeptical or completely dismissive of the science behind human-caused climate change. One woman called it a farce. 

Others also said they would have a hard time being fair. Many had family members who work in the pipeline industry. And they felt the activists' actions put their safety at risk. 

In a statement, Enbridge condemned the protesters' actions as reckless and dangerous. 

"The individuals involved in these activities claimed to be protecting the environment, but they did the opposite and put the environment and the safety of people at risk — including themselves, first responders and neighboring communities and landowners," Enbridge said.

The protesters had no idea of the risks of their actions said Bob Schoneberger of the pro-pipeline group Minnesotans for Line 3.

Outside the Clearwater County courthouse
Outside the Clearwater County courthouse, where the last of four trials related to the 2016 shutdown of tar sand pipelines that cross the border from Canada into the United States.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

"'Turning the valve' was really trying to stop a 1.5-billion-pound batch of oil traveling around 8 miles per hour at one spot with one valve. It would be the same as trying to stop five 100-car trains full of oil at the same time by putting a crossing arm in front of it," he said. 

The activists were prepared to present evidence on the safety measures they took. Tony Ingraffea, a former Cornell University engineering professor who helped write pipeline safety guidelines for the American Petroleum Institute, traveled to Bagley to testify on their behalf. 

"The defendants never intended to do damage to a pipeline, and in fact, did no damage to the pipeline," he said. "They never intended to harm anyone in Clearwater County or anyone on the face of the earth and in fact they did not."

Nancy Norr with Jobs for Minnesotans, a supporter of pipelines, worries future protesters might not take the same precautions as these defendants. 

"I'm just very concerned that we will have other individuals deciding this is an appropriate way of demonstrating their resistance to energy transportation through pipelines," she said.

The case shows state law needs an adjustment to prevent similar actions from going unpunished, Norr said.

"I think we will have to be visiting further with our legislators to address then what the practicalities are of the law and how we can make sure that this type of activity would be considered illegal in the future."

State Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, Chair of the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Committee sounded a receptive note, saying "This is a very dangerous action that needs to be corrected in the next legislative session."