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The Trial of Heather Doyle: Md. County Drops the Hammer on Anti-LNG Activist

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Heather Doyle in front of Cove Point Lighthouse. Photo credit: SEED Coalition.

 

A Calvert County, Md., jury on May 27 found environmental activist Heather Doyle guilty of making a false statement to a police officer. After the verdict, the judge sentenced Doyle to 15 days in jail. She was immediately taken into custody.

The case goes back to early 2015 when Doyle and a fellow activist were arrested for trespassing as they protested Dominion Resources Inc.’s construction of liquefied natural gas export facilities at its Cove Point terminal, located on the Chesapeake Bay in southern Calvert County. Doyle helped guide fellow protester, Carling Sothoron, on her climb up a crane at a Cove Point LNG construction site where Sothoron unfurled a banner that read, “Dominion get out. Don’t frack Maryland. No gas exports. Save Cove Point.” In an official complaint filed after the incident, Doyle accused Calvert County Sheriff’s Office deputies of assaulting her when they were removing her from the crane. 

Anne Meador, a journalist and co-founder of DC Media Group, a grassroots collective of reporters, has closely followed the debate over the construction of the Cove Point LNG export terminal. Meador filed daily stories for DC Media Group from the Calvert County court house in Prince Frederick, Md., during Doyle’s three-day trial. 

On May 27, the day on which the guilty verdict was read, Meador reported that Judge Marjorie Clagett of the Calvert County Circuit Court sentenced Doyle to three months in jail, with all but 15 days suspended, 240 hours of community service, two years of supervised probation, and $165 in court costs. 

CounterPunch interviewed Meador to get her insight on the trial of Doyle and how the close relationship between the Calvert County government and Dominion Resources may have affected the prosecution’s decision to bring these serious charges against Doyle. Here’s the interview:

CounterPunch: You and DC Media Group have been providing extensive news coverage of the fight over Dominion Resources’ plans to build an LNG export facility at Cove Point in southern Calvert County, Md. Why does DC Media Group believe the battle over Cove Point deserves so much attention?

Anne Meador: Cove Point LNG isn’t just a huge profit-generator for one corporation. It will have enormous ramifications for the gas industry in the Marcellus Shale. Even though the gas reserves in the Marcellus have been overestimated, probably purposefully, the gas fracked in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia is like a cork ready to pop. Frackers need to get their product to markets where they can get the best price, and that means international markets. The situation has changed since prices plummeted, but it will come back. Dominion Cove Point is the linchpin, the exit point best situated geographically for all this fracked gas to get out of the country where it can make billions in profit for these companies. A lot rides on it.

And of course for those people opposed to all the terrible effects of fracking — earthquakes, ruined health, poisoned wells and aquifers — and to all the buildout that comes from fracking — pipelines, compressor stations and gas storage — there is a lot riding on Cove Point too. Stop Cove Point, and you can cut off the profit incentive for a lot of fracking and gas infrastructure.

And I’m not even getting into the harmful effects of the terminal itself.

CounterPunch: Instead of simply opting not to pursue disciplinary action against the sheriff deputies in response to Doyle’s complaint, why do you think county officials decided to charge Doyle with the serious crime of making a false statement to a police officer?

Anne Meador: Heather Doyle wasn’t allowed to introduce much context into her defense, because it was all squelched in pre-trial hearings as inadmissible. But context is key to understanding why the County pursued criminal charges against her and Carling Sothoron, even after an internal investigation put the official complaint to bed.

Calvert County put all the chips down on Cove Point. It recently lost a few million dollars in state funding for education, it’s become more of a “bedroom community,” and generally the residents are so anti-tax that they can’t raise taxes. The notes in the annual budget unambiguously say that if the money doesn’t start rolling in from Cove Point in 2017, they’re screwed. So if anyone starts talking about how dangerous it is, how people are going to get sick breathing the fumes from that place, or how the whole enterprise might affect a lot of people in other places in devastating ways, the County Commissioners just stick their fingers in their ears.

Some of the Commissioners don’t hide their disgust with protesters, especially Doyle and Sothoron. For example, immediately after Heather was convicted, Evan Slaughenhoupt, a Calvert County commissioner, posted a comment on Facebook saying, “Hope she likes the food. I asked that the normal chef (who is a really good cook) take a vacation while she is confined. Bottom line, Don’t mess with our wonderful deputies who put their lives at risk, and if you do, don’t lie about your interaction with them.”

Ever since 2007, when the Coast Guard said it could no longer escort tankers to the terminal, Dominion and the County have had a cost-sharing agreement. It funds the positions of eleven deputies known as the Special Ops Team. Dominion bought them two cool fast boats and other equipment. This year, the County expects to be reimbursed $1.5 million, about one-tenth of the department budget. If that agreement was terminated, then poof, there go the salaries of eleven deputies, who spend most of their time serving warrants and doing SWAT-style drug busts.

The Sheriff’s Office seems shocked that anyone has a problem with this arrangement with Dominion and offended that anyone would find anything untoward about it. But if you don’t want Cove Point LNG and its 14.6 Bcf of LNG, 410,000 gallons of propane and the spark of two 87 MW combustion turbines across the street from you, it can be pretty confusing trying to figure out whether these deputies work for you or work for Dominion, especially when they harass and videotape you, and possibly even surveil your communications. There’s also a culture of reverence for military and police, and probably a bit of a victimhood complex about all the criticism aimed at law enforcement because of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Nonviolent protesters and opposition are a threat to the Cove Point going into operation, but not to its safety. As a legitimate terrorist target, the terminal needs security. But Dominion can rely on the Sheriff’s Office to protect its interests beyond security.

So I think the County and the Sheriff’s Office went all out for their benefactor Dominion. If they could discredit Heather Doyle, they could discredit the whole movement opposing Cove Point. In having twelve jurors effectively say that she was making up a story about being assaulted by a Sheriff’s deputy, Dominion got a big win. And the County expended an excessive amount of energy and resources to do it.

CounterPunch: You sat through the entire trial. Were you surprised when the jury came back with a verdict of guilty against Doyle for making a false statement to a police officer?

Anne Meador: I interviewed Heather twice for more than an hour both times. I found her credible and detected no inconsistencies, even though the interviews were a year apart. There is a difference in the way that people recount incidents in the past which were simply upsetting or disturbing and ones in which they experienced trauma. When she described what happened with Sgt. Bortchevsky on the crane, she would pretty much go into an altered state but remain consistent with details. It seemed to me that she had undergone a traumatic experience compatible with assault. This indicated to me that, at the very least, she didn’t imagine or invent the story.

Unfortunately, there was no third person videotaping the incident, and she couldn’t produce physical evidence of an assault. So it was pretty much a she said-they said situation. An internal investigation is by nature insufficient. How can a police department investigate itself? The defense wasn’t able to obtain a lot of information about Dominion and the Sheriff’s partnership, because even though they are supposedly “open” about it, they guard the details about it under the pretense of sensitive security information. The defense also couldn’t look at the deputies’ records to see if they had prior disciplinary offenses. It couldn’t bring up her motivation for the protest, the “catastrophic threat” of Dominion Cove Point. And the prosecution came at her with everything they had. They put an experienced Senior Assistant State’s Attorney on the case, they dug into her past, they got expensive blown-up photos of the crane made, they made sure to dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s. Just for this little misdemeanor case.

So no, I wasn’t surprised that the jury came back with a guilty verdict.

CounterPunch: What was the reaction in the courtroom when the jury’s verdict was read?

Anne Meador: The courtroom remained silent. There were no signs of celebration among those who agreed with the jury verdict. There were about 20 of Heather’s friends and supporters there, and they care deeply about her. I think they felt terribly on her behalf. Her parents were in attendance, and her mother seemed devastated, thinking that this would have long-lasting effects on her daughter.

CounterPunch: You mentioned earlier that a Calvert County commissioner has asked that Doyle be mistreated during her jail sentence because she filed the complaint against the sheriff deputies. You’ve described the very close relationship between Calvert County officials and Dominion Cove Point. Do you think the prosecution’s victory in this case, which was an extremely hard case for the prosecution to win, will deter future protests against the Cove Point export terminal?

Anne Meador: The burden of proof was heavily on the prosecution. It had to convince the jury that an assault didn’t occur and the deputies weren’t dangerously incompetent, that Heather Doyle made the whole story up and filed an official complaint with the intent of wasting police resources. But I don’t agree that it was extremely hard for them to win, given the resources they put into it and the tendency for people to believe law enforcement officers as a matter-of-course.

Lowering the hammer on a protester like that must have a chilling effect. They’re playing hardball. But the fact is, about 2,500 people live within one mile of Cove Point LNG, and a catastrophic accident could kill them instantly. With a lesser accident, they’re trapped on the peninsula. They can’t sell their houses now. They have no choice but to fight this, even though construction is far along. There are many other people determined to stop Cove Point in solidarity with residents and prevent the incentive for more fracking and gas infrastructure. I don’t expect the opposition to fold; I just expect it to be smarter.

Mark Hand has reported on the energy industry for more than 25 years. He can be found on Twitter @MarkFHand.

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