R.I. Native Guilty on 1 Charge; Hung Jury on Sabotage

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Ken Ward was found guilty of second-degree burglary. (Climate Disobedience Center)

Ken Ward was found guilty of second-degree burglary. (Climate Disobedience Center)

Providence native Ken Ward continues to skirt harsh penalties for committing unlawful acts in the name of climate change. In the so-called “valve-turner” trial that concluded June 7, Ward was found guilty of second-degree burglary.

The jury, however, was unable to reach a verdict on the more serious charge of sabotage. The district attorney in Skagit County District Court in Mount Vernon, Wash., hasn't said if Ward will be tried a third time.

The trial is a second attempt to convict Ward for cutting the lock on a valve station in Burlington, Wash., and closing a valve on the Kinder Morgan-owned Trans Mountain Pipeline. The pipeline carries tar-sands oil from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia. On the same day, three other valve-turners committed similar acts in Minnesota, Montana and North Dakota. A trial for Leonard Higgins begins July 18. Michael Foster and Sam Jessup will be tried Oct. 2.

Ward's first trial, held in February, resulted in a hung jury on both charges. Ward avoided a potential sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a $40,000 fine.

The sentencing for the burglary charge is scheduled for June 22. Ward, however, is appealing the conviction on grounds that the judge refused his necessity defense. The legal reasoning posits that Ward’s crimes were done out of an moral obligation to combat climate change. By blocking the argument, the judge denied testimony from climate-change experts and research showing its impact on the environment.

"I relish the opportunity to return to Mount Vernon and retry the case with a full necessity defense when we win on appeal,” Ward said after the trial.

Rather than accept a plea agreement, Ward and the other valve-turner defendants seek a not-guilty verdict using the necessity defense. An acquittal, they reason, would inspire climate activists to commit similar acts of civil disobedience without fear of significant jail sentences and fines.

“These trials, rather than being an obscure legal argument, are an opportunity to open the floodgates on a nonviolent movement of climate disobedience,” wrote Jay O’ Hara, who co-founded the Climate Disobedience Center with Ward, Tim Dechristopher and Marla Marcum.

O’Hara said that jurors he spoke to after the valve-turner trail were looking for a legal path to acquit Ward.

The necessity defense was also planned for Ward’s Lobster Boat Blockade trial in 2014 in Fall River, Mass. Ward and O’Hara used a lobster boat to block a freighter from delivering coal to the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Mass.

Climate scientist James Hanson was expected to testify at that trial. But on the day of opening arguments, Bristol County District Attorney Samuel Sutter threw out the most serious charges. Ward and O’Hara avoided larger fines and prison time, but were unable to test their innovative defense.

Soon after, Ward moved to Oregon and founded the Climate Disobedience Center with O'Hara, who now lives in Vermont, and DeChristopher, a well-known climate activist who lives in Pawtucket, R.I.