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Men who shut down Keystone Pipeline in northeast North Dakota found guilty

Michael Foster, left, stands Tuesday near the Pembina County Courthouse in Cavalier, N.D., with his attorneys Michael Hoffman, center, and Alice Cherry. (Submitted Photo by the Climate Disobedience Action Fund)

CAVALIER, N.D. — Two men who shut down the Keystone Pipeline in Pembina County have been found guilty on criminal charges.

The verdict came about 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, for Michael Eric Foster of Seattle and Samuel L. Jessup of Winooski, Vt., who were both on trial this week in Pembina County District Court. They were charged with multiple crimes after law enforcement said they interfered with emergency valves on TransCanada’s Keystone Pipeline in October near Walhalla, N.D., about 100 miles northwest of Grand Forks. The two were part of a group called Climate Direct Action, which shut down several pipelines across the country as an act of solidarity with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.

In Pembina County, TransCanada said restarting the pipeline after the incident cost about $50,000.

The trial began Monday, with jury selection carrying over into Tuesday. About 20 jurors were excused for cause before the arguments got underway Tuesday afternoon.

The defense intended to use a necessity defense, which argues a person can commit a crime if there is no other way for that person to avoid risk or being harmed. In Foster’s and Jessup’s cases, they originally wanted to argue their actions were justified due to “the dangers of climate change,” according to court documents.

Judge Laurie Fontaine ruled against that move, saying in court documents the defense failed to meet the burden of proof to use that tactic.

Fontaine also ruled against the defense’s move to present four expert witnesses and at least 55 exhibits during trial. Three days before the trial, the defense sent an email to prosecutors indicating they intended to use the experts and exhibits, according to court documents.

The defendants argued the Sixth Amendment allowed them to present a complete defense, adding the experts would “bolster the credibility of their client’s belief,” according to court documents.

Prosecutors argued the experts’ testimonies would discuss climate change and was inadmissible based on the previous necessity defense ruling, according to court documents. The state also argued it had no time to prepare or raise objections in response to the late development.

Fontaine wrote in court documents that there was a chance the testimony and evidence would confuse or mislead the jury “into believing the legitimate concerns regarding climate change are an excuse or defense to the crimes charged,” which would go against the ruling prohibiting the necessity defense.

“This court case should not become a forum on the issue of climate change for experts,” she wrote. “The issues in this case are whether these defendants willfully and/or recklessly violated the law as the culpability relates to each charge.”

Jessup was found guilty on conspiracy to commit criminal mischief, a Class B felony, and a misdemeanor criminal conspiracy charge. Two other charges have been dismissed.

Foster also was found guilty on conspiracy to commit criminal mischief, as well as a Class B felony of criminal mischief and a misdemeanor charge of criminal trespass. He was acquitted on a misdemeanor reckless endangerment charge, and four other counts were dismissed.

Jessup faces up to 11 years in prison, while Foster could be sentenced to 21 years in prison. Sentencing has been set for Jan. 18.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers business and political stories. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

(701) 780-1248
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