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Two protesters convicted in first pipeline jury trial

MANDAN, N.D.-Two pipeline protesters were convicted Tuesday of misdemeanors in the first Dakota Access-related jury trial in Morton County.The case, which laid bare some of the disorder around the pipeline cases, also featured the first attempt t...

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Emergency personnel were on the scene May 3 when the school bus crashed north of Bemidji, Minn. (Submitted photo)
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MANDAN, N.D.-Two pipeline protesters were convicted Tuesday of misdemeanors in the first Dakota Access-related jury trial in Morton County.

The case, which laid bare some of the disorder around the pipeline cases, also featured the first attempt to pick a jury in a county flooded with news and personal ties to the controversy.

The trial pertained to two men - Benjamin Schapiro, 30, of Ohio, and Steven Voliva, 62, of Washington - who were arrested Sept. 27 and accused of blocking a highway to allow a caravan of protesters to proceed. A jury convicted the men of obstructing a highway and disorderly conduct, and fined them $1,285.

 

Early objections

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Tuesday's proceeding was the court's second attempt this week to commence a jury trial of pipeline protesters. On Monday, a 10-person trial was postponed after a judge learned some evidence had not been provided to the defense attorneys.

Though the trial happened Tuesday, it was not without confusion and objections: Voliva first reached his defense attorney, William Thomason, shortly before trial and showed up seemingly unexpected in the courtroom midway through a 9 a.m. pretrial hearing. Kent Morrow, representing Shapiro, speculated that he was missing a key police report.

Voliva is a part-Yupik retiree and artist who said he protested a pipeline in Alaska when he was younger. Shapiro is a teacher and farmer. Both said they worried about potential environmental consequences of the pipeline.

Two other men arrested in the same incident were supposed to go to trial Tuesday, as well; but one did not have an attorney and was not in court. The other is in California and reached his attorney, Bob Quick, this past weekend, according to Quick.

No representative of the Morton County State's Attorney's Office appeared at the pretrial hearing to respond to the objections, and South Central District Judge Bruce Romanick was determined to proceed.

"We've got to keep moving," he told the attorneys with four hours to go before the trial. "That's how our system works."

 

Jury selection

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Prosecutors and defense attorneys have expressed concern in recent days over their ability to find a fair six-person jury in Morton County. Their worries were reflected in questions asked by the judge and attorneys during the selection process.

"We need to talk about the elephant in the courtroom," Romanick said early in the jury selection process, before asking about people's connections to this specific protest, people in law enforcement or the camps, and their use of social media.

One man, who said he was in stopped traffic due to this protest, was quickly excused. So was a woman who, when asked by Morrow about her associations with the name "Dakota Access Pipeline," responded "get them out of here" and "they're guilty." Other potential jurors who did not make the final panel included a Mandan city commissioner, a man with family in law enforcement and the pipeline industry, and a man who said he records protests around Bismarck-Mandan for Facebook.

Among the jurors serving were a homemaker, a pharmacist, a construction worker and an antiques dealer, who all said they could be fair.

After the trial, Morrow said he "had no doubt they tried to be fair," though he said he worried some were quiet about their true feelings about the protest.

 

Trial

The evidence presented at trial consisted of testimony of three law enforcement officers who were on N.D. Highway 6 that day.

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Mercer County Sheriff Dean Danzeisen, who was assisting Morton County, said he looked through binoculars and saw the car containing the defendants, who were masked, pull into the intersection of Highway 6 and County Road 135 south of St. Anthony so that a convoy of protesters could proceed without stopping. He said the men got out of the car.

At least one car was stuck directly behind the protesters and another went around them, he said. The sheriff testified that he alerted Morton County deputies to pull over the car once it left the intersection and arrest the men inside.

Not mentioned in court was that a protest was staged that day along Highway 6 at a pipeline construction site.

In his closing argument, Ladd Erickson, who prosecuted the case for Morton County, asked the jury to focus on the defendants' alleged actions.

"Regardless of your passions and opinions, you cannot block public roads," he said. "If you rule against the state here, I can't go lay out in the street and protest your actions."

The defense attorneys countered that the state's case jumped to too many conclusions. They suggested their clients had not decided to stop the car in the road, that they might have had mechanical problems, and that no one had testified to feeling harassed by them.

"These officers arrived there without really knowing what was going on. And they just made some assumptions. And without asking anybody anything, they charged people with crimes," Thomason said.

 

Sentencing

After an hour of deliberation, the jury found the men guilty of the two Class B misdemeanors. Romanick gave them 10-day suspended sentences, meaning they will serve no jail time if they successfully complete a year on unsupervised probation. He also ordered $500 in restitution to law enforcement and $500 in reimbursement to their public defenders, along with mandatory court fees.

Romanick's decision to order reimbursement to the attorneys came upon a request from Erickson. The prosecutor told the judge in court he intended to seek a hearing for reimbursement after the trial, because he contends the protesters are seeking to do economic harm to Morton County through their arrests. The defense attorneys opposed this, since their clients were indigent enough to qualify for appointed counsel, and said they had not tracked their hours.

The judge set the fees at $500, which he said was less than any of the protesters could have paid for a private attorney. He noted the protesters are almost always able to make bond, and he suggested that meant they ought to be able to pay for their defense, too.

"You can get a job and pay these costs back," he remarked.

Voliva said after the trial that he wasn't surprised by the verdict.

"The environment is taking the worst of it," he said.

Related Topics: DAKOTA ACCESS PIPELINE
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