Jury finds Winona frac sand protesters guilty
WINONA — In what might be one of the oddest trials in Winona County District Court history, 20 frac sand protesters spent four days implicating themselves on misdemeanor trespassing charges as their legal counsel spent hours fruitlessly arguing in their defense, including a 40-minute closing argument.
Despite being convicted — one by one — on Thursday by a jury of six after four hours of deliberation, the group left Judge Jeffrey Thomson's courtroom in a jovial mood. They had accomplished their mission of increasing awareness of what they say are the health and environmental dangers of silica sand.
"We're not here to argue the law," Lake City's Michael Abdoo said afterward. "(The prosecution) didn't even have evidence on a lot of us, but we still went up there and implicated ourselves.
"(Our trial) brings it out to more people. If there's one thing that everyone in America loves it's a good court case, so this makes me feel good."
Abdoo was one of 20 people found guilty of trespassing by physically blocking trucks carrying silica sand from entering a commercial dock and a processing facility in Winona on April 29, 2013. They were sentenced immediately after the verdict to one year of unsupervised probation during which they are also banned from returning to the two sites.
Additionally, Judge Thompson issued warrants for six defendants who did not show up for the trial. Charges against nine others were dropped due to lack of evidence.
The initial protest brought together more than 100 people from nine states to take part in the demonstration. They — and others, such as Winona Area Citizens Concerned About Silica Mining —had previously raised health and environmental concerns about frac sand at the city, county and state level. Feeling their prior efforts weren't successful, some chose to organize the protest, which brought truck traffic to a halt at both sites for at least an hour.
Richmond McCluer, the defense attorney, called the ensuing joint trial one of the strangest experiences of his career.
"Some of the people seemed to be admitting what they did," McCluer said. "In my 30 years as a criminal defense attorney, I usually tell my clients that's a bad idea. Essentially what they're saying is they're just following through with actions that they believe in."
"Many of these defendants got on the stand and told you (they were guilty) right to your face," prosecuting attorney Michael Flaherty told the jury in his closing argument.
The defendants didn't quite get everything they wanted, though. Judge Thompson ordered each defendant to pay $200 in restitution, which will be split between the two Winona businesses. They each must also pay an $85 court surcharge. Both amounts are due within 90 days.
Given that most of the defendants have taken vows of poverty and earn less than $10,000 annually, that amount is considered substantial. Each told Judge Thompson they couldn't ethically give money to such businesses. At least two said afterward that they have no intention of paying, which could lead to further issues.
"Democracy is a messy process," Judge Thompson said after both sides had rested their case and the jury had left the room. "It seems to me … that every time you think you've taken a step forward, you take one step back. Over time, if you work hard enough, you can change peoples' minds. But that doesn't mean you have the right to break the law."
Winona Area Citizens Concerned About Silica Mining member Marie Kovecsi did not participate in the 2013 protest, but she did attend the final three days of court proceedings as a show of support.
One of the defendants told Judge Thompson that he looked forward to seeing him again, while Abdoo said it's "definitely within the realm of possibility" that another protest will be held at a later date. Those words echoed Kovecsi's frustration with the regulatory process.
"We have sat in meetings," Kovecsi said. "We have written letters to the editor. We have written our legislators and met with them. I think people are just feeling very frustrated."