MANDAN – Hundreds of trials for activists who stood against the Dakota Access Pipeline have seen the judge’s gavel, but only two, so far, received jail time.
Mary Redway, 64, a retired environmental biologist from Rhode Island, and Alexander Simon, 27, a teacher living in New Mexico, both were found guilty and sentenced Thursday to jail by Southeast District Court Judge Thomas Merrick. Both activists, known as water protectors, were arrested on October 22, 2016 along with 140 others, most of whom had their charges dismissed.
Despite the North Dakota State’s Attorney’s lack of a recommendation for jail time, Merrick sentenced Simon to 18 days in jail and Redway to a total of six days, with two already served.
“There is no logic or consistency to the different outcomes people received on these same charges,” a Water Protector Legal Collective press release stated. “Judge Merrick’s decision to sentence them to jail demonstrates disparate treatment.”
The Water Protector Legal Collective is an indigenous-led, on-the-ground legal team defending activists arrested during the months-long Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. It is currently fighting up to 427 criminal cases in North Dakota, according to the legal team’s website.
Merrick reportedly signed the petition trying to change the law temporarily allowing out-of-state attorneys to represent activists facing charges during the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy, the Water Protector Legal Collective reported.
“That effort failed,” the Water Protector Legal Collective press release stated.
The North Dakota Supreme Court Clerk’s office reported 536 comments on the judges’ petition to change the current law. The North Dakota Supreme Court upheld their January ruling granting permission for out-of-state lawyers to continue defending those arrested during the controversy. “We conclude termination of our prior order would be premature,” Supreme Court judges said.
During the public comment period, many asked the state a question: why is it permissible to accept out-of-state checks from Dakota Access, LLC, but not allow out-of-state lawyers to defend people not from North Dakota?
Dakota Access, LLC recently gifted $15 million to the state via the Bank of North Dakota, and sent Energy Transfer Partners teams to first responders in North Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois, with additional checks, totalling $1 million.
The financial gifts have been called bribes by opponents of the pipeline, and the act of a “good neighbor” by those supporting the pipeline.
The Water Protector Legal Collective says the denial of the motion to allow out-of-state lawyers is part of the reason two activists received jail time days after the Supreme Court made its ruling.
“We see this decision as his attempt to send a message that people will face harsh sentences regardless of innocence or guilt as a means to put pressure on others with pending charges to take pleas or forgo trial. The prosecutorial discretion and conviction of some and not others has been arbitrary and targets what police and state’s attorneys call agitators.”
New Mexico teacher Simon was charged and found guilty of misdemeanor charges of physical obstruction of government function and disorderly conduct, and was acquitted of disobedience of safety orders during a riot, according to court records. Rhode Island biologist Redway was found guilty of disorderly conduct, acquitted for disobedience of safety orders during a riot, and found not guilty of physical obstruction of a government function, according to court records.
Merrick is the judge that dismissed charges against The Guardian photojournalist Sara Lafleur-Vetter earlier in October. He was scheduled to retire at the end of 2016, according to news reports.
Hundreds of cases still remain to be tried. Officially, 761 people were arrested during the months-long opposition to the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, and in July, 114 cases were dismissed by the state. Eleven people received guilty verdicts; 50 pleaded guilty – primarily on lesser charges -- and three have been acquitted. A total of 854 people were arrested, according to the Water Protector Legal Collective.
[ Editor’s note: This is a continuing story and will be updated with new information]
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