Trial of Oregon Climate Change Activist Ends in Hung Jury

Ken Ward walks… for now.

Ken Ward (Joe Riedl)

The criminal trial of environmental activist Ken Ward ended in a mistrial today when a Skagit County jury couldn't reach a verdict.

"I think it's a huge victory," Ward said via phone shortly after a mistrial was declared. "It means that at least some on the jury were unwilling to convict me on either counts."

The 60-year-old Corbett, Oregon man faced three felony charges and one misdemeanor for breaking a lock and shutting off a valve on the Trans Mountain Pipeline in Burlington, Wash, which transports Canadian Tar Sands crude oil into the state for refinement.

Ward — a 30-year-long environmentalist who once served as the deputy director of Greenpeace USA — planned to argue a "necessity defense," which essentially would claim that in his three decades of work he had exhausted all legal options to stopping climate change. He wanted to claim that the government, through its inaction, forced him to break the law.

But just a week before his trial began, Judge Michael E. Rickert said he wouldn't allow Ward's attorneys to go that route.

"I don't know what everybody's beliefs are on [climate change], but I know that there's tremendous controversy over the fact whether it even exists," Rickert said, according to The Guardian. "And even if people believe that it does or it doesn't, the extent of what we're doing to ourselves and our climate and our planet, there's great controversy over that."

Over the course of the two-day trial, Ward says he was not allowed to offer "whole swaths of climate science," and couldn't discuss previous activism, like his 2013 lobster boat blockade which impeded a ship carrying 46,000 tons of coal from a coal plant in Massachusetts for a day.

Yet the jury still couldn't reach a unanimous verdict on any of the charges.

Related: Ken Ward is willing to go to jail for the rest of his life to fight climate change.

While today's hung jury means Ward will remain a free man for now, he believes it is likely that Skagit County prosecutors will call for a new trial at a scheduling conference next week. Prosecutors could not immediately be reached for comment.

If prosecutors decide to try again, Ward says he will — again — try for a necessity defense.

In November, The Stranger reported that a King County judge ruled that fighting climate change wasn't actually optional for Washington state. (The judge's decision is here.) That decision might be what Ward needs in order to argue a necessity defense.

Rickert "said from the bench that the science of climate change is not decided," Ward says. "Under the State of Washington law it is decided. An adopted part of the statutes of Washington … absolutely determines that it's human-caused."

Ward, for now, is relieved. "Frankly I am surprised," he said. "The whole trial took two days because there was really nothing for me to say. Even with that there were members of the jury that wouldn't convict. I think that's huge."

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