Palm Beach Post

December 02, 2008

 

Trial underway for FPL plant protesters

By SUSAN SPENCER-WENDEL

 

WEST PALM BEACH Seven environmentalists arrested while protesting Florida Power & Light Co's new gas power plant faced a jury this morning, on trial for misdemeanor crimes of unlawful assembly, trespassing and resisting without violence.

 

Self-proclaimed anarchist Peter Tsolkas and others from Everglades Earth First! huddled around the defense table, their sport coats ill-fitting, their hair tousled or dyed pink, their activist spirit perfectly intact.

 

"We hope to show this is a time for unconventional action, urgent action," Tsolkas said outside court.

 

Tsolkas and dozens of others were arrested in February as some linked themselves together using PVC pipe and chicken wire, blocking an entranceway to the future site of FPL's West County Energy Center, snarling traffic for hours along Southern Boulevard.

 

Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office deputies responded to the scene, calling out their Emergency Field Force - an elite unit trained to respond to large-scale emergencies or natural disasters, a prosecutor told jurors this morning in opening statements.

 

"You will hear they had to sit and cut apart every piece of PVC pipe and take the time to pry all these individuals out of these devices, "Assistant State Attorney Laura Burkhart said.

 

Assistant Public Defenders Erich Taylor and Charles Fountain II, who represent the group, declined to give an opening statement. But they are anticipated to be relying on a legal rarity: a "necessity" defense allowed by law but rarely used.

 

One after the other, sheriff's officers and witnesses took the stand as prosecutors Burkhart and Danielle Croke, introduced evidence - photo after photo of the posted no-trespassing signs, the video of the deputies carting the limp bodies of protesters away.

 

The deputies politely recounted for jurors setting up a free-speech area for the protesters to move to, warning them repeatedly that they would be arrested if they didn't go there.

 

"I heard traffic was blocked all the way to the Fairgrounds," said one witness, John William Bates, an operations manager of Palm Beach Aggregates on whose property who the protest occurred.

 

"How far is that?" the prosecutor asked.

 

"About 10 miles," Bates said.

 

One juror raised her brow.

 

Testimony in the case against Tsolkas, Lynne Purvis, Marc Silverstein, Russell McSpadden, Richard Halsted, Brandon Block and Noah Wilson is expected to continue through Wednesday in front of County Judge Laura Johnson.

 

Possible penalties after a conviction could vary, depending on the person's criminal history or lack thereof. They could range from probation to some jail time and subject them to possible thousands of dollars in fines and restitution.

 

This is the third separate trial held against the protesters. An earlier one ended in a partial acquittal, according the Everglades Earth First! web site. They are expected to present evidence and expert testimony about what they believe is the potential damage and danger of the power plant - belching carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and leaching pollutants underground just across from the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

 

Tsolkas said the necessity defense means that one is allowed to break the law for the greater good and is buoyed by a recent not-guilty verdict for a person who used that defense in Great Britain.

 

Florida jury instructions require much more, though. The instructions say that a person would have to reasonably believe that a danger posed significant harm and the harm was "real, imminent and impending."

 

The plant, which FPL promotes as being among the cleanest of its kind in the nation, is still under construction.