Thursday, September 11, 2008

Civil Disobedience and Juries

I'm always interested in seeing how juries react in cases where criminal charges are the result of civil disobedience. The primary aim of activists on trial is usually to bring obscure but shocking facts and circumstances into public space (which is, of course, what acts of civil disobedience are most often intended to do) and public discourse. (In case you hadn't realized it, a courtroom, unless it has been closed to the public, is a public space par excellence.) One generally hopes to have an impact on the jury---not necessarily to win an acquittal, but more importantly to bring a part of reality into their thinking that they've previously been unaware of. Acquittal (or dismissal of the charges by the judge) is simply icing on the cake.

In some cases, though, an acquittal can be more than that. Today's Independent/UK reports that six Greenpeace activists put on trial for painting the name of Prime Minister Gordon Brown on the chimney of a power station in order to protest a plan to build a new generation of coal-fired plants were acquitted by a jury on the grounds of "lawful excuse." NASA scientist James Hansen testified on behalf of the defendants, asserting

that emissions of CO2 from Kings-north would damage property through the effects of the climate change they would help to cause.

He was one of several leading public figures who gave evidence for the defence, including Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Richmond Park and director of the Ecologist magazine, who similarly told the jury that in his opinion, direct action could be justified in the minds of many people if it was intended to prevent larger crimes being committed.

The acquittal was the second time in a decade that the "lawful excuse" defence has been successfully used by Greenpeace activists. In 1999, 28 Greenpeace campaigners led Lord Melchett, who was director at the time, were cleared of criminal damage after trashing an experimental field of GM crops in Norfolk. In each case the damage was not disputed - the point at issue was the motive.

Here's a bit more from the article:

The court heard how, dressed in orange boiler suits and white hard hats bearing the Greenpeace logo, the six-strong group arrived at the site at 6.30am on 8 October. Armed with bags containing abseiling gear, five of them scaled the chimney while Mr Hewke waited below to liaise between the climbers and police.

The climbers had planned to paint "Gordon, bin it" in huge letters on the side of the chimney, but although they succeeded in temporarily shutting the station, they only got as far as painting the word "Gordon" on the chimney before they descended, having been threatened with a High Court injunction. Removing the graffiti cost E.ON £35,000, the court heard.

During the trial the defendants said they had acted lawfully, owing to an honestly held belief that their attempt to stop emissions from Kingsnorth would prevent further damage to properties worldwide caused by global warming. Their aim, they said, was to rein back CO2 emissions and bring urgent pressure to bear on the Government and E.ON to changes policies. They insisted their action had caused the minimum amount of damage necessary to close the plant down and constituted a "proportionate response" to the increasing environmental threat.

Speaking outside court after being cleared yesterday, Mr Stewart said: "This is a huge blow for ministers and their plans for new coal-fired power stations. It wasn't only us in the dock, it was the coal-fired generation as well. After this verdict, the only people left in Britain who think new coal is a good idea are John Hutton and Malcolm Wicks. It's time the Prime Minister stepped in, showed some leadership and embraced the clean energy future for Britain."

He added: "This verdict marks a tipping point for the climate change movement. When a jury of normal people say it is legitimate for a direct action group to shut down a coal-fired power station because of the harm it does to our planet, then where does that leave Government energy policy? We have the clean technologies at hand to power our economy. It's time we turned to them instead of coal."

Ms Hall said: "The jury heard from the most distinguished climate scientist in the world. How could they ignore his warnings and reject his leading scientific arguments?"

An acquittal in a high-profile case like this one may well have reverberations. Interesting, isn't it, that half a dozen letters on a chimney can be perceived as so threatening...


Vandana Singh said...

Thanks for sharing this story, Timmi! Very inspiring!


Morgan Dhu said...

Canada's laws limiting abortion were ultimately declared unconstitutional because juries kept on acquitting Dr. Henry Morgentaler despite the fact that he openly performed abortions in private clinics without making women jump through any of the hoops that were in the law. He'd be charged, the jury would acquit, the government would appeal the decision, and finally the last case reached the Supreme Court which declared that law under which he had been charged to be unconstitutional.

Since then, there has been no law in Canada which singles out abortion as a legal issue to be handled differently than any other medical procedure.

A lot of it is due to Dr. Morgantaler's willingness to fight on no matter what, but it was the jury acquittals that resulted in the eventual overthrow of the law.