Len Emery Photo Prosecutor Steve Brown, Judge Wesley and the defendants confer over a question from the jury regarding testimony in the criminal trespass trial of six Vermont Yankee protesters.
BRATTLEBORO — Six anti-nuclear protesters were convicted Tuesday of unlawful trespass at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant by a Windham County jury, after a judge rejected their attempts to turn the trial into a tribunal on nuclear power.
After deliberating for more than an hour and a half, the four-man, eight-woman jury returned the unanimous guilty verdict.
The elderly protesters, all women from Massachusetts and members of the Shut It Down Affinity Group, reacted quietly to the verdict but later vowed to return to their protests at Vermont Yankee.
A courtroom full of supporters of the six women also stood as the verdict was read. They had all freely admitted they had chained themselves to a fence at Vermont Yankee, and padlocked the front gate on Aug. 30, 2011.
The case was unusual because it was prosecuted, while hundreds of other, identical cases have gone unprosecuted.
But after the women were convicted, and set for sentencing, Windham County Deputy State’s Attorney Steve Brown said the women’s timing — and the fact that they pulled away needed resources from the police response to Tropical Storm Irene — needed to be computed into their sentence.
Superior Court Judge John Wesley finally fined each of the women $350, after the women rejected community service, saying their anti-nuclear activities were community service. The women asked Wesley to send them to jail, but he flatly refused.
Found guilty were Mary E. Kehler of Colrain, Mass., Ellen Graves, West Springfield, Mass., Nancy First, Northampton, Mass., Harriet Nestel, Athol, Mass., Frances H. Crowe, Northampton, Mass., and Patricia “Paki” Wieland, also Northampton, Mass.. The women ranged in age from 69 to 93, and are retired professors, social workers, mediators and psychologists. All have been arrested at Yankee numerous times in acts of civil disobedience but this was the first prosecution.
The women claimed it was Entergy Nuclear that was “trespassing” on Vermont’s clean air and clean water, claims which drew repeated objections from the prosecutor.
The judge had ruled out the so-called necessity defense, saying the issue was not about nuclear power and Vermont Yankee, but about the women’s actions, and not their thoughts.
His ruling limited the evidence in the case, but the judge gave the six defendants a lot of leeway in presenting their case, with the women detailing their life of activism and their opposition to nuclear power.
The prosecutor Brown birddogged them legally, continually objecting to their statements as “irrelevant.” In most cases, the judge agreed.
Since 2006, the group has staged 22 protests at the gates of Vermont Yankee, resulting in arrests. In the Aug. 30, 2011 case, six women locked the inner gate to Vermont Yankee and chained themselves to the gate. The group’s most recent protest was Oct. 17.
Brown eventually asked for the judge to order the women to each perform 100 hours of community service in Windham County, and that the women be banned from protesting at Yankee during the term of their suspended 45-day sentence.
But Wesley rejected both requests, and instead settled on the $350 fine. Unlawful trespass carries a potential fine of $500, Wesley said.
The Shut It Down Affinity Group has eight Vermont members, but they were not part of the Aug. 30, 2011 protest. Windham County prosecutors have, for the last 12 years or so, routinely declined to prosecute any protester cases, saying it was a misuse of limited court resources.
In fact, all charges against the 137 anti-nuclear protesters who were arrested in a giant protest at Entergy Nuclear headquarters in Brattleboro on March 22 of this year have been dismissed, as have other charges against the same group of women protesters.
Brown, in his request for sentencing, appeared to confirm suspicions that the Aug. 30 protesters were being prosecuted because of their bad timing: the protest was held two days after Tropical Storm Irene hit southern Vermont, pulling essential police forces to the Vernon nuclear reactor and away from responding to the emergency.
“A day after Hurricane Irene, these six defendant chose to occupy law enforcement’s time,” said Brown, saying that they took away key response effort. They should perform community service to give back to the community, he said.
Later, Brown said he would not comment on the reasons behind the prosecution of this group of protesters.
Nestel and Kehler said after the trial that in Massachusetts the damage from Irene was not as great, and when they headed to Vermont Yankee the morning of Aug. 30, they had no idea of the devastation in Vermont.
“We would have rescheduled,” said Kehler.
Vernon Police Chief Mary Alice Hebert had testified that the women were without fail polite and peaceful, and she said there was “mutual respect” between the police and the protesters. Another Vernon police officer and Patrick Ryan, the director of security at Vermont Yankee, testified against the women. Each of the six women took the stand and gave “soliloquies” in the words of the judge.
Jury selection had been completed Monday afternoon, and the trial started at 9 a.m.
Wesley had ruled that the so-called “necessity defense” would not be allowed as part of the trial, and it would be a narrowly defined case of unlawful trespass.
But much of the testimony given by the six women centered on their motivations behind their anti-nuclear activity, which they all said had only gotten more serious since the March 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima.
“Vermont Yankee is costing us plenty,” said protester Harriet “Hattie” Nestel, a former Vermont resident. “This is about shutting Vermont Yankee down. The state should be putting a padlock on the gate.”
Brown said the case was not about whether Vermont Yankee should operate.
“We’re not here to debate nuclear power,” he said.
The judge thanked the jury for struggling with the case. “This has been a difficult trial with difficult issues of conscience,” he said.
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