Judge Timothy Tomasi declared a mistrial at the Orange County Courthouse in Chelsea on Monday in the case of pipeline opponent Henry Harris. Harris was charged with trespassing during an early-morning demonstration at the home of then Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Recchia.
The mistrial was declared at the request of prosecutor Dickson Corbett, following a courtroom demonstration that featured dozens of Harris’ supporters removing their shirts to reveal prisoner’s clothing and unfurling banners reading “sentenced to climate change.” The supporters, some of whom had travelled from the Bread & Puppet Theater in Glover, joined others from “The People’s Department of Environmental Protection” to support Harris, who had hoped to center his arguments around the validity of the controversial Addison County Natural Gas Pipeline, a project approved by the Public Service Board during Recchia’s tenure.
Former Public Service Director Commissioner Chris Recchia wears a bemused expression as he’s surrounded by demonstrators during the trial of Henry Harris, who is being tried for trespassing at Recchia’s home last May. (Herald / Dylan Kelley)
“There are places for protest,” said Judge Tomasi as he declared a mistrial. “Courtrooms are not one of them,” he said, emphasizing that the “verdict must be decided upon evidence,” rather than courthouse demonstrations.
“It’s a surprise,” commented Recchia following Tomasi’s decision. “It’s an indication that the court is serious about keeping jurors very secure in understanding what the facts are and not listening to anything else.”
Harris believes the mistrial was an attempt to conceal lack of evidence for the state’s charges against him.
“I did not think they were going to declare a mistrial,” he said outside the courthouse after the decision. “I think the only reason they declared a mistrial is because they did not have sufficient evidence to convict me.”
Another possible reason for the mistrial was the exposure of the jury to extraneous information. Nearly 20 minutes went by when Judge Tomasi retired to his chambers but failed to dismiss the jury, leaving them exposed to courtroom activities and discussions in his absence.
“The judge left the room and left the jury in the room, which is not the protocol,” said Harris. “The jury should’ve been dismissed immediately.”
“It wasn’t at all what I expected,” said juror Peter Thompson of Thetford, as he left the courthouse and briefly exchanged words with Harris on the sidewalk. “I’m not so sure this approach is effective,” said Thompson, who works as a geologist and describes himself as an environmentalist. “As a jury member, many of us felt put upon by all this.”
Micro versus Macro
For Harris and the dozens of pipeline opponents who turned out at the Chelsea courthouse, the trial was about much larger issues than trespassing and protests on public or private property; namely fossil fuel emissions and natural resource extraction.
“This is way bigger than trespassing,” said Harris. “For me it’s really about people who are being robbed of their land and water rights,” he added, explaining the process of extracting natural gas from layers of shale through a hotly debated process known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”
Banned in Vermont, the fracking process can lead to localized earthquakes and pollution of aquifers.
Despite the controversy around fracking, Recchia believes the discussion around this case must remain confined to the May 25 events of last year, when Harris and others arrived at his Randolph home to protest the PSD’s handling of the pipeline application.
“There has to be a line between public jobs and private life,” said the former Public Service Department commissioner. “This crossed the line in terms of coming onto my property.”