7 Greenpeace Activists Cleared
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
In a full victory, seven Greenpeace activists who suspended themselves from the Aurora Bridge to protest Alaska factory trawlers were cleared this morning of all nuisance and obstruction charges.
"Clean sweep! Clean sweep!" they cheered in unison when the Seattle Municipal Court jury's verdicts were read after four hours of deliberation.
Jury foreman Frederick Bindel said after the trial that jurors agreed with Greenpeace's main contention that the protesters broke no laws. If there was a law against hanging from the bridge, things might have been different, Bindel said, but there is no such ordinance. "The demonstration was extremely well-orchestrated," he added.
Juror Barbara McCormick agreed. "This was a legal assembly," she said. "There was nothing posted on the bridge that they were breaking laws."
Another juror, Alan Waggoner, said he could understand the city of Seattle's need for order and noted that the defendants did disrupt traffic and "cost the city a lot of money."
"But people have the right to hold a demonstration, " he said.
An assistant city attorney expressed disappointment at the outcome. "We felt we had a good, valid case," said Mike Finkle, who helped prosecute the case. The city had asserted that the protesters broke the law when they ignored police officers' calls to pull themselves up and end the protest. Further, said the city, Greenpeace blocked traffic and created a general nuisance.
City Attorney Mark Sidran said the demonstration cost taxpayers $42,000 for police and fire services.
"These seven people obviously deeply believe in what they're doing," Assistant City Attorney Kevin Kilpatric said in closing arguments yesterday. "But they don't have the right to break the law."
Jurors disagreed. "The police did not have the right to end a legal demonstration," Waggoner said.
During trial, the defense came down to one main argument: Greenpeace activists had a First Amendment right to lower themselves from the Aurora Bridge for 48 hours last August to protest factory trawlers leaving Lake Union for Alaska. They stopped just one vessel, the Elizabeth Ann, when they lowered themselves in front of the ship as it was attempting to pass into Puget Sound.
Greenpeace is an organization not given to understatement, and that was never so apparent as during the final days of the trial.
Seven different attorneys - all working for free - represented the accused, and each was allowed to give closing arguments yesterday before the case went to the six-person jury.
Defense attorney Jim Roe said the Greenpeace activists were simply exercising their constitutional right to free speech and that no one on the bridge or in the water was ever in danger.
"They did the demonstration too well," he said. "These are just people who are trying to make this a better place."
"It's no different if (my client) was in the Seafair Parade and decided to express herself on the back of a float," said another defense attorney, Neil Fox. "It's not a crime to annoy someone."
Greenpeace said it staged the protest to emphasize its position that the trawlers deplete ocean-fish populations too quickly, destroying aquatic life. It says powerful fishing interests have led to government complicity in overfishing.
King County Municipal Court Judge Jean Rietschel last month dismissed charges against two other Greenpeace activists who spoke to the news media while the protesters were suspended from the bridge. The two had been charged with "accomplice liability" - aiding and encouraging the activists.
Charges were dismissed against a third man, Joseph Dibbee, on Monday. He was stationed under the bridge, helping the protesters.
Had they been found guilty, each of the Greenpeace protesters could have drawn a $5,000 fine and up to one year in jail for obstructing a public servant, and up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine for committing a public nuisance.
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