The final pretrial for a lawsuit against eight climate demonstrators charged with trespassing on University of Michigan property took place Thursday morning in the Washtenaw County Courthouse. The demonstrators were arrested in March after a climate-focused sit-in at University President Mark Schlissel’s office, which followed the Washtenaw County Climate Strike on the same day.
The demonstrators’ chief demand at the sit-in was a one-hour meeting with Schlissel and other members of the administration to discuss the University’s plan to achieve carbon neutrality. A group of demonstrators refused to leave until the University addressed their demands, which resulted in the arrests of 10 individuals on charges of trespassing — two of whom were minors, though the prosecutor’s office is only charging people over 18.
Ann Arbor attorney Angie Martell is representing all trespassers in the case. Two of the defendants were excused from Thursday’s hearing due to travel.
Approximately 90 people sat in the audience. Many attendees wore green in solidarity with the Washtenaw County Climate Action Movement, which was responsible for organizing the climate strike and sit-in.
Martell began by stating she only received five out of the seven compact disks containing footage she expected to receive. She said the disks she did receive did not have audio, which she said does not align with what she was told in discovery. Martell also noted the potential information from the additional CDs and audio could impact how she presents her case.
Additionally, Martell described the lawsuit against her clients as a “civil disobedience” case, in which people disobey the law to prevent greater harm. In this instance, Martell said the demonstrators were trespassing to avoid climate change-related harm in the future.
“We feel that without this information — which is only in the hands of the University — we are hampered in having a fair trial in this case,” Martell said. “This case is not just about the trespass; it’s about one day in which, across the globe, 1.4 million young people came out to talk about bringing light to the current situation and the threat of climate change inaction. And it’s the belief of many of the defendants in this case, or members of the University at large, that the University been slow and reluctant to address some of these issues.”
However, Joseph Simon, an Ann Arbor-based criminal attorney representing the University, said the power of discovery in a criminal case is not the same as in other cases. He said attorneys do not have vehicles of discovery in any criminal case, so it would be unfair to allow the defense to obtain evidence in this lawsuit.
Washtenaw County Assistant Prosecutor, Ashley Londy, brought all the disks in her possession to the pretrial and said she could provide additional copies if Martell was missing any of them. Londy said there was no bad faith displayed in her team’s handling of the footage.
“No one is editing any of these videos,” Londy said. “We’ve turned over everything that we have, and if we haven’t, we absolutely will. We are in a pretrial phase in this case — it is not the morning of trial. We’re not ambushing anyone, because we don’t believe in trial by ambush.”
Martell responded by saying she was not accusing the prosecution of editing footage, but rather making sure the University had disclosed all the evidence.
After both sides spoke, Judge Karen Quinlan Valvo said she did not feel Martell acted maliciously in her requests and was not placing sanctions on her. However, she said Martell’s requests for evidence would not be completed.
There was a short break for attorneys to check in with their clients. Once back on the record, one of the demonstrators took a plea deal that was made available to all defendants charged.
The settlement conference was scheduled for Jan. 2 and the trial for Jan. 13 at 9 a.m. Valvo said the trial will continue on Jan. 14 at 10 a.m. if necessary.
The defense pleaded not guilty and were arraigned during the first pretrial on June 17. A trespassing charge bears a maximum charge of a $250 fine with a potential of 30 days in jail. At this hearing, demonstrators were released on a personal recognizance bond, meaning they did not have to pay bail. They were told they cannot enter the Fleming Administration Building, leave the state without permission of the court or use alcohol or marijuana. However, Valvo lifted the ban for defendants over 21 to accommodate for the Jewish holiday.
Groups such as the Huron Valley Area Labor Federation and Young Democratic Socialists of America, as well as politicians including former gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed and current candidate for Washtenaw County prosecutor Eli Savit, have expressed support for the defendants.
On April 9, Schlissel and other members of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality held a public session to discuss some of the demonstrators’ concerns and strategies to move the University closer to carbon neutrality. The Commision also held a forum on Sept. 25 to address concerns about the University’s progress in this area.
In a September interview with The Daily, Schlissel said the Commission on Carbon Neutrality is still working on solutions on how to achieve carbon neutrality while maintaining the magnitude of the University’s heating system and building plans. He acknowledged, though, that in the long term carbon neutrality must happen.
“It costs more money, so it’ll slow down some of our ambitions, but we’re going to try to strike the right balance between continuing to be a great place to go to school and a research university and a great health system, and then being proper stewards of the environment,” Schlissel said. “So, in the short term, I can’t envision a way to get out of fossil fuel use entirely, but longer term I think we have to, and the challenge is, how long it’s going to take and what the options are to get there.”
After the hearing, LSA senior Kristen Hayden told The Daily she attended the pretrial in solidarity with the people charged. Hayden also said she felt the University should acknowledge its role in the trial and withdraw so the prosecutor does not have a strong case against the defendants.
“They got arrested for these beliefs that we also hold, and just because we did not get arrested does not mean that we do not find this the most important issue of our generation,” Hayden said. “It is vital for us to be out here showing support for them, support for the cause and pushing the University to continue to understand that this is the most important issue that they should be working on right now.”