District Attorney Sympathizes with Coal Activists

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — It was promoted as a historic trial that would test a new legal defense with testimony from high-profile environmentalist. Instead, thanks to a highly sympathetic district attorney, the case against Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara wrapped up quickly Sept. 8 with a plea deal.

Both men faced charges of disturbing the peace, conspiracy and boating violations after attempting to block a freighter filled with coal with a 32-foot lobster boat on May 15, 2013. After state and local police brandished their weapons and boarded the boat, the men were arrested and 40,000 tons of coal were eventually delivered to the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset.

In the plea, District Attorney Samuel Sutter dropped most of the charges, and O’Hara and Ward agreed to pay $2,000 each in restitution to the town of Somerset.

Outside Fall River District Court, Sutter said he sided with the defendants, calling their actions legitimate.

“Climate change is one of the gravest crisis our planet has ever faced. In my humble opinion, the political leadership on this issue has been sorely lacking," he said. "I am heartened that we were able to forge an agreement that both parties were pleased with and that appeared to satisfy the police and those here in sympathy with the individuals who were charged.”

In a show of unity, Sutter also said he plans to attend the Sept. 21 climate march in New York City.

Ward and O’Hara intended to use a climate-necessity defense that claimed their actions were done out of necessity to prevent great harm to the environment. High-profile environmentalist Bill McKibben and former NASA scientist James Hansen were set to appear as witnesses. Activist Tim DeChristopher, who served two years in jail for holding up a lease auction of federal land for fossil-fuel development, was actively promoting the case.

Money from more than 130 donors was raised for their defense. Activists were invited to attend the trial. “Dress in your Sunday best, leave the signs and chants at home, and be prepared to sit patiently and to join together in song,” Ward and O’Hara wrote on their website. Transportation, lodging and even a potluck dinner was planned for the attendees.

“Even now, as the West Antarctic ice shelf is in unstoppable collapse, the Brayton Point plant is increasing the amount of coal it burns. Protest works, indeed protest may be the only thing that can save us,” Ward wrote in press release.