Protesters' trial unconventional

Wednesday November 28, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- Tuesday's trial for six Vermont Yankee protesters featured ringing cell phones, applause, a poster bearing a large fish, a reference to Hitler and an attempt to introduce the Bill of Rights as evidence.

While the result -- trespassing convictions and $350 fines -- was fairly ordinary, the trial that proceeded that verdict was anything but.

That was partly the result of the defendants' decision to represent themselves. But Judge John Wesley had pledged early in the day to allow the six female members of the Shut It Down Affinity Group to express themselves as long as they stayed "within bounds" set by the court.

"That, in my judgment, is part of their right to a fair trial," Wesley said.

The lack of defense attorneys led to some unconventional and awkward moments, including:

-- When Vernon Police Chief Mary Beth Hebert said all of the defendants except for Nancy First had been arrested for previous Yankee protests, First quickly corrected her.

"No, I have," First said.

Wesley ordered that admission stricken from the court record.

-- While Windham County Deputy State's Attorney Steven Brown had introduced photos of the nuclear plant's entrance as exhibits, protester Patricia "Paki" Wieland took the stand and asked for admission of the Bill of Rights.

Wesley denied her request.

-- At one point, two of the women unfurled a large "VY poisons all" banner that had been used in the protest. But they were unsure what to do next.

Wesley said the court had no interest in keeping the banner, adding that he would consider it "a demonstrative exhibit."

The defendants also brought to court a large poster showing a fish and bearing the words "hot water," a reference to emissions from the plant.

-- With no defense attorneys to ask questions, Wesley told the defendants to simply take the stand and testify as in a "soliloquy."

But Brown later pointed out that it was allowable for the women to ask each other questions as cross-examination. Wesley agreed and praised Brown's ethics, and the courtroom audience erupted in applause.

"Thank you, Mr. Brown," spectators said in unison.

-- Frances Crowe, the oldest of the defendants at 93, had no issue with using an extreme example to show why protesters had exhausted their "administrative remedies" and felt compelled to trespass at Vermont Yankee.

"Everything Hitler did in Nazi Germany was legal, but it was wrong," she said.

-- The defendants also did not shy away from highlighting their ages. Wieland quoted a Native American saying: "When the grandmothers speak, the earth will heal."

After the trial, outspoken protester Hattie Nestel saw the group's collective age as an indictment of many who will not protest.

"Who is there to say 'no?' Six old ladies," she said. "It's ridiculous."

-- In violation of court rules, Nestel's cell phone rang repeatedly during the trial even after she thought she had turned it off.

When a phone rang late in the proceeding, she declared that "it's not me."

-- There were multiple references to the defendants' past protests and arrests, and it was apparent that Hebert had a good working relationship with the protest group.

Asked to characterize the protesters, she initially hesitated but then answered.

"What do I think you are? Persistent," Hebert said, evoking laughter from the courtroom audience.


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