Sutter agrees to plea deal in Brayton Point coal blockade

Article Date: September 9, 2014

From The Standard Times

By Ariel Wittenberg

FALL RIVER — Calling climate change “one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced,” Bristol County District Attorney Samuel Sutter agreed to a plea deal Monday between his office and two activists arrested last year for blockading the coal-fired Brayton Point power plant in Somerset.

Activists Jay O’Hara and Ken Ward had been planning to use a “climate necessity” defense at trial Monday to argue that the imminent threat of climate change justified their seven-hour blockade of the plant in May 2013.

Instead, Sutter’s office agreed to drop conspiracy charges against the two environmental activists and to reduce other charges of disturbing the peace and motor vessel violations to civil infractions. In return, O’Hara and Ward agreed to pay $2,000 each in restitution to the town of Somerset, where the Brayton Point Coal Plant is located.

Sutter said Monday that the decision “certainly took into consideration the cost to the taxpayers. But it was made equally with our concern for their children, the children of Bristol County and beyond in mind.

“In my humble opinion, the political leadership on this issue has been greatly lacking,” he said. “This is a symbol of our commitment at the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office to take a leadership role on this issue.”

Matt Pawa, attorney for the defendants, said he was pleased with Sutter’s decision.

“Ken and Jay stood up for what was right and now the district attorney has stood up for what is right.”

More than 70 environmental activists were present outside of Fall River District Court to support O’Hara and Ward. After the plea deal was announced, they broke into song, singing “This Little Light of Mine,” among other hymns.

O’Hara thanked those in the crowd for their support, though he said “our actions would have been the right thing to do even if no one had paid attention.”

Ward said he was disappointed that the pair did not have the opportunity to use their “climate necessity” defense in court, calling the plea deal “bittersweet.”

“I’m disappointed because we had the opportunity to put coal on trial,” he said.

Tim DeChristopher, a climate activist who helped raise money for Ward and O’Hara’s defense, said that going to trial “would have been great” to help publicize the environmental movement and the dangers of climate change, but “it is also great to build new allies, and it seems the district attorney may be one. By expressing clear support for what they did, he stepped out of his normal role and recognized the threat of climate change. That’s a very important shift.”

Environmental policy professor at UMass Dartmouth Chad McGuire was not at court on Monday, but said later that Sutter’s decision was “great to hear.”

He said that though the courts are not the correct venue to make climate policy, Sutter’s comments “signal to Congress ‘Hey, fix this.’ “

He likened Sutter’s decision to plead out the case to a state attorney general deciding not to enforce laws prohibiting same sex marriage.

“He is taking a moral stand while still enforcing the law,” McGuire said. “There’s a domino effect here where these echoes we hear locally and regionally can start being heard and having some influence.”

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