A recently concluded criminal trial in Washington State drew national attention when five defendants became the first group of climate activists ever to be granted the right of using the “necessity” defense in a US court to justify their actions. Five ordinary citizens, drawn together by a common concern for public health and safety, had broken into a railyard and successfully blocked a mile-long freight train carrying crude oil for the better part of a day before being arrested. Climate activists in similar legal predicaments have been consistently denied this line of defense. In a packed courtroom near Seattle the so-called “Delta 5” testified and brought in expert witnesses to argue that their deliberate act of civil disobedience was needed to prod policymakers to more aggressively face climate change, and to impose restrictions on the burgeoning but dangerous practice of transporting crude oil by rail through the Pacific Northwest. Washington State is a hub of oil-by-rail activity coming through the region; oil trains have increased in number from 9,500 in 2008 to over 400,000 in 2014, with even further significant projected increases slated for 2020 and 2025.
After several days of testimony the judge determined the strict terms for a necessity defense had not been met and instructed the jury to disregard all they had heard. Nonetheless, the six jurors had been swayed and they acquitted all five of the more serious charge of “blocking a train” and declared them guilty only of the lesser charge of “trespassing.” The five activists were spared any jail time at sentencing. Following the trial, observers reported good will and hugs between jurors and defendants, expressions of thanks offered by the judge and jury for the education, and invitations to join the activists at future events. Does the Delta 5 trial signal a shift in attitudes towards climate activism?