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Trial Begins For Cove Point Activist

Above photo: Activists on the boardwalk of Solomon’s Island in March, 2016. From SEED Coalition.

Prince Frederick, MD – The first day of an unusual trial of an anti-fracking activist began with jury selection, opening statements and testimony from four witnesses for the prosecution. Charged with making a false statement, Heather Doyle is the object of retaliation for political reasons by the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office, according to SEED Coalition, the grassroots group she is affiliated with. On Tuesday, the prosecution challenged the veracity of the complaint she made alleging police brutality and unsafe conduct and attacked her credibility.

The whole process started more than a year ago with a protest initiated by Doyle and Carling Sothoron on February 3, 2015. They were trying to draw attention to Cove Point LNG, the massive gas liquefaction facility being constructed by Dominion Resources in Lusby, MD. Using climbing gear and ropes, they climbed to the top of the crane at one of Dominion’s construction sites and dropped a banner. State troopers and deputies from the Calvert County Sheriff’s Department responded to notification of trespassers on the site.

The Calvert County Sheriff’s Department has a financial arrangement to provide security for Dominion Cove Point.

Heather Doyle in front of the Cove Point Lighthouse
Heather Doyle in front of the Cove Point Lighthouse

“I feel that the Calvert County Sheriff’s Deputies are not working for the people of Calvert County but for Dominion,” Doyle said in her complaint filed in April 2015.

Jury selection took more than four hours. Many questions asked of potential jury members inquired about any possible connection with law enforcement or Dominion Cove Point. Many members of the jury pool had served in the military or had relatives who are current or retired police officers. Two admitted that their associations with law enforcement would affect their ability to make an impartial decision. As a sign of how small this Southern Maryland community is, a potential juror stated that he takes martial arts classes with the head of the Sheriff’s security detail for Dominion Cove Point, and another said he went to high school with the same deputy and had coincidentally run into him this morning.

There were also potential jurors with associations with people who work for Dominion Cove Point or subcontractors.  One juror has a roommate who just started working for Dominion Cove Point. The jury of twelve is composed of seven women and five men, two of whom are African-American and ten white. There are two alternates.

In her opening statement, State’s Attorney Kathryn Marsh distinguished between what she wants the jury to consider relevant and irrelevant. “This is not about Dominion LNG, not about the right to protest, or freedom of speech. It’s about making a false statement [to police],” she said, quoting Maryland law. She reminded the jury that it is a crime to make false allegations of police brutality, and testimony would show that Doyle’s allegations are not true.

In his opening statement for the defense, Sean Day, representing Heather Doyle, described the original incident on February 3, 2015 and the police conduct which led her to file a complaint. In the complaint, she alleges that Sheriff’s deputies conducted themselves in an unsafe manner in extracting herself and Sothoron from the crane. Day described Doyle and Sothoron as “expert climbers,” and he explained Doyle’s role as belay at the base of the crane for Sothoron.

The complaint goes on to further allege that one officer assaulted her by putting his boot on her chest and pressing his forearem into her throat for a sustained period while other officers watched.

“It felt like it was crushing my chest,” Doyle said in the complaint. “He was assaulting me because he wanted to, is what I perceived.”

Two elements of prosecution strategy became apparent with the initial questioning of witnesses by State’s Attorneys Kathryn Marsh and Michael Gerst—to contradict Doyle’s version of events and attack her credibility.

David Marco, a labor relations manager for contractor IHI/Kiewitt, testified that he did not recall seeing an assault on Doyle and said that officers yelled at the climbers to come down for ten to fifteen minutes.

State’s attorneys focused largely on the timing of the official complaint when questioning Capt. Kevin Cross of the Calvert County Detention Center, and Sgt. James Goldsmith, who conducted the internal investigation. Doyle was convicted of trespassing on April 20, 2015 and incarcerated. On April 30, she signed the complaint form, according to Capt. Cross. Officer Goldsmith said the case was assigned to him on May 4.

He said he first became aware of the allegations earlier, however, while driving to work and listening to a St. Mary County’s radio show in which SEED Coalition activist Kelly Canavan was being interviewed. (Canavan is likely to testify on Wednesday.) SEED Coalition had published a full account by Doyle and Sothoron of their perceived endangerment and assault on its website on April 21. When pressed by Marsh, Goldsmith stated that this posting and others on social media had influenced his investigation, saying that “it goes to credibility.” The prosecution also played recordings of phone conversations Doyle had with Canavan while she was incarcerated discussing preparation of a complaint.

Defense attorney Sean Day said in his opening statement that Sheriff Mike Evans had called into the radio show and invited formal complaints.

Sgt. Goldsmith will continue his testimony on Wednesday. The trial is expected to last at least three days. If found guilty, Doyle could face up to six months in jail.

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