The Vermont justice system may have wanted just another routine jury trial on charges of criminal trespass, but for the accused six grandmothers the day-long trial was also an opportunity to bear witness, each in her own polite way, that they had acted out of conscience to protect themselves and others against the dangers of an aging nuclear power plant in particular and against the general danger of nuclear power to the planet.
That's the rather strange context for a day-long trial in Windham County Superior Court in Brattleboro, Vermont, on Nov. 27, when six Massachusetts women, aged 64-93, faced possible jail time and fines up to $500, if convicted, for padlocking shut the gate to the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and then chaining themselves to that gate on Aug. 30, 2011.
Superior Judge John Wesley interpreted the women's position to be an assertion of the "necessity defense" and ruled that defense was not allowed. But he also took notice that the women were representing themselves, without attorneys, and that as pro se parties they would have unusual leeway in their testimony. The women, who have been arrested often in at least 21 other protests against Vermont Yankee since 2006, freely admitted these alleged acts, denied they were trespassing, and welcomed the opportunity to explain why they acted.
The resulting courtroom scene was only part legal proceeding. It was also part political theatre, part group therapy, and part something of a spiritual teach-in, with an audience of dozens of supporters for the women who are part of the Shut It Down Affinity Group, a bi-state association of activists focused on Vermont Yankee.
One of the supporters, Dusty Miller, described her response to the trial of what she called "actions motivated by conscience" ...
"Yesterday, I spent the day in a Brattleboro courtroom, witnessing the trial of six white-haired grandmothers who were charged with trespassing at the gates of Vermont Yankee. ...
"Yesterday, I was repeatedly moved to tears. I was inspired and challenged by the actions and the courage of the women I was there to support. Most important, I felt hope again, hope that ordinary citizens can take a stand against corporate powers who pollute our earth and water with impunity."
Checkered Safety Record
Vermont Yankee is located on the Connecticut River in southeast Vermont, close to both the New Hampshire and Massachusetts borders. There has been regional grassroots resistance to the plant since before it opened in 1972.
That resistance has increased significantly in recent years as Vermont's governor, attorney general, and legislature have all joined in the effort to close the plant. Vermont Yankee's safety record has been uneven and deteriorating, including releases of radioactive tritium that has reached the Connecticut River.
Even Vermont law enforcement, particularly the Windham County State's Attorney (county prosecutor) whose jurisdiction includes Vermont Yankee, has taken a soft approach to protesters at the site -- arresting hundreds of people in recent years, often including these women, but prosecuting none -- until this case.
When the six grandmothers set out from Massachusetts on Aug. 30, 2011, 15 months ago, they were aware that Tropical Storm Irene had passed though New England and that it hadn't had much impact where they lived. In retrospect, one of them, Mary Kehler, 64, of Colrain, said they would have re-scheduled their long-planned protest if they had realized how hard parts of Vermont had been hit by Irene.
Not knowing, they proceeded with their plan to block Vermont Yankee's main gate with non-violent civil disobedience, chaining themselves to the gate and shutting it down until they were arrested, while causing only minor disruption to the plant's operation.
This was not the first time any of them had been arrested at Vermont Yankee. They have demonstrated there several times since, most recently on Oct. 17, when police arrested 12, including four of the defendants.
The Shut It Down Six includes a professor, social worker, mediator and psychologist, and each woman told her story in her own way, as well as in coordination with others. Given great latitude by the judge, the women's testimony drew frequent objections from the state, some of which were upheld, some not.
Deputy state's attorney Steven Brown prosecuted the charges on behalf of the State of Vermont and kept his presentation narrowly focused on the facts, which were undisputed.
Barred Necessity Defense