Wednesday November 28, 2012

MIKE FAHER

Brattleboro Reformer

BRATTLEBORO -- Moments after being convicted of trespassing on Vermont Yankee nuclear plant property, Hattie Nestel asked Judge John Wesley to send her to jail.

Wesley declined, and Nestel -- along with five fellow members of the Shut It Down Affinity Group -- was fined $350 and allowed to walk out of a Brattleboro courtroom Tuesday evening.

On the way out, however, Nestel and the other protesters remained unrepentant and said they would not pay a dime of the fine Wesley had imposed.

"By fining us, the state is complicit in keeping (Vermont Yankee) open. They should be locking it down like we locked it down," Nestel said. "That’s what they should be doing -- putting a padlock on it and saying, ‘You’re closed.’ It’s too dangerous. Tomorrow could be too late." Nestel added that she "absolutely" would be returning to the gates of the Vernon plant.

That declaration followed a day-long trial that represented a rare instance of prosecutors taking Vermont Yankee protesters to court.

Activists generally are arrested and later released with no further legal ramifications.

"In this case, we felt it was an appropriate use of resources to go forward with prosecution," said Steven Brown, a Windham County deputy state’s attorney.

The timing of the nonviolent protest played a role in its outcome.

Though officials did not explicitly make this connection in court aside from a passing mention by Brown, the six women chained themselves to the plant’s gate on Aug. 30, 2011 -- just two days after Tropical Storm Irene had ravaged the area.

On a day when emergency personnel were busy helping flood victims, "these six defendants chose to occupy law enforcement’s time," Brown said.

Nestel denied that the timing was deliberate.

"We had planned that (protest) way, way, way in advance," she said.

But the women -- none of whom had an attorney in court -- did not deny that they were on Vermont Yankee property that day and refused to leave despite repeated requests from plant personnel and from Vernon police Chief Mary Beth Hebert.

Each also said they had been arrested for protesting at Vermont Yankee before.

As each of the defendants took the stand, Brown limited his questions to those basic facts. He also called Hebert and Patrick Ryan, the plant’s security manager, to testify about details of the protesters’ arrest.

"This case is very, very simple when it’s boiled down," Brown told the jury in his closing arguments.

The defendants -- all of them Massachusetts residents ranging in age from 64 to 93 -- followed a much different course. They portrayed their actions as necessary and even justified, noting the on-going court battle between state officials who want to shut down the plant and federal regulators who have renewed an operating license for plant owner Entergy.

"They are operating illegally. They are the trespassers," Nestel said. "And we are the enforcers of the state’s will." They also raised concerns about Vermont Yankee’s effects on the environment -- particularly the Connecticut River -- and on residents’ health. Ellen Graves of West Springfield said she is trying to preserve a way of life.

"The work that we do is for us and for future generations," Graves said.

Asked why she returned to protest at Vermont Yankee again and again, Graves offered a simple answer: "Because I’m sure that the plant is not safe." The final defendant to take the stand was 93-year-old Frances Crowe.

The Northampton resident wore a black shirt bearing the words "greed kills" and, when she was sworn in, she said she was a Quaker who could affirm but could not swear.

"It wasn’t a frivolous thing that I did. It was deadly serious," Crowe said of the protest.

The long-time anti-nuclear activist added that she is trying to engage more citizens to protest at the plant.

"I want them to join me at the gate and say ‘no’ with their bodies," Crowe said.

When Crowe tried to discuss the storage of spent fuel at Vermont Yankee, Brown objected and Wesley ordered her to stop. It was one of many instances where the prosecutor and judge tried to steer the trial away from the plant’s operations and the political and legal dispute over its future.

"This trial is not about the legality of Vermont Yankee’s continued operation," Wesley said.

The jury -- made up of eight women and four men -- received the same instruction and deliberated for about 90 minutes before finding all six women guilty of trespassing.

Along with Nestel, Graves and Crowe, also convicted were Nancy First and Patricia "Paki" Wieland of Northampton and Mary Kehler of Colrain.

The case then proceeded directly to sentencing. Brown requested a suspended jail sentence of 30 to 45 days, meaning the protesters would serve time only if they violated a condition of their release.

He also asked Wesley to bar the women from entering Vermont Yankee grounds and to order each of them to perform 100 hours of community service in Windham County.

Most of the defendants rejected those recommendations and asked Wesley to simply release them. Nestel asserted that the group already had "put in thousands of hours of community service trying to save this community." Wesley said there were no legal grounds to dismiss the women without a penalty. But he also declined to order a suspended jail sentence, instead imposing a $350 fine on each of the women.

"There are certain criminal behaviors for which the criminal-justice system is a pretty crude instrument," Wesley said.

Afterward, Brown thanked the jury and said the court’s sentence "serves the ends of justice and is appropriate under the circumstances." If the protesters do not pay their fines, the matter will be turned over to a collection agency, Brown said. They do not face jail time for nonpayment.

Kehler said the experience was positive because it allowed Shut It Down members to air their concerns in open court.

"The judge was very lenient in allowing us to say a lot of things that many judges would never let you say," she said. "The prosecutor could have objected more." But Kehler also remarked on the complexity of the Vermont Yankee controversy.

"The irony is, we’re in a state court for a state that really wants Entergy out of here and has voted that way and had a governor elected on that platform," she said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.