In a courtroom packed with a standing-room-only crowd of some 30 supporters (and more in the hall outside), anti-fracking demonstrator Madeline ffitch Wednesday pleaded not guilty to a felony charge of inducing panic, suggesting she's being over-charged by the state as a way to scare off other potential protestors.
"I believe the state is making an example of Ms. ffitch, by charging her with a felony for what should be misdemeanor conduct, if anything," alleged defense attorney Constance Gadell-Newton. The attorney suggested this is being done "to discourage concerned citizens from voicing their concerns about the oil-and-gas industry."
Ffitch was arrested June 26 after she chained her wrists inside two barrels filled with concrete at a site in Alexander Township that was home to an injection well for wastewater from oil-and-gas drilling sites.
The protest was meant to draw attention to the issue of hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") for oil and gas, disposal of its wastewater, and the environmental impacts of both. The issue is heating up in Athens County, as elsewhere in Ohio, as it begins to appear more likely that there may be a boom in drilling here.
An anti-fracking group called Ohio Fracktion has claimed that it "surreptitiously" obtained a sample of the brine going into the Ladd Ridge Road well where ffitch staged her protest, and that analysis has shown it to contain radioactive material, as well as arsenic, barium, toluene and other toxic chemicals.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has acknowledged that wastewater from the Ladd Ridge Road injection well contains those substances, but maintained in an article in the Aug. 13 Columbus Dispatch that those compounds are common in deep-shale wastewater and that the disposal wells are designed to contain them. The ODNR reportedly conducted a spot check on the Ladd Ridge Road disposal well two days after ffitch's protest there, and that no problems were found.
FFITCH IS CHARGED WITH inducing panic, a fifth-degree felony. The offense carries a maximum penalty of a year in prison and a $2,500 fine, though ffitch could also be required to pay up to $7,500 in restitution for the costs of the police/fire response her protest generated.
Her arraignment in Athens County Common Pleas Court Wednesday was attended by more than 50 supporters, some of whom demonstrated outside the courthouse.
Michael Rinaldi-Eichenberg, who held up a sign outside that read, "Fighting injustice (does not equal) inducing panic," suggested he was there to protest what he considers the heavy-handedness of local authorities in dealing with a case that's mainly about free speech and civil disobedience in a worthy cause.
"I think it's a complete over-reaction," Rinaldi-Eichenberg said. "Madeline was just trying to bring attention to an issue I think we all should be thinking about… What she's charged with is far too severe."
Inside the courtroom, Gadell-Newton – in a move one almost never sees from the defense at an arraignment – didn't waive reading of the indictment, requiring Judge L. Alan Goldsberry to read the document aloud for ffitch's benefit.
After ffitch pleaded not guilty, Athens County assistant prosecutor Meg Saunders said her office did not oppose letting ffitch go free on her own recognizance, without posting any cash bond. Saunders did ask, however, that the court require ffitch to stay in Ohio while her case is pending, and also to stay away from anyplace where "she could potentially protest against fracking."
She noted that in the past, ffitch has been arrested and convicted of disorderly conduct in Montana, where she once lived.
Gadell-Newton told Goldsberry that she wouldn't object to ordering ffitch to stay away from the Ladd Ridge Road site where she was arrested, but thinks a complete ban on involvement in any anti-fracking demonstrations "would violate the free-speech rights of my client."
The judge granted the ROR bond, warning ffitch that it means she must show up for any and all hearings in her case, or face a new criminal charge of failure to appear.
He granted the prosecution's request for bond conditions, though he limited the no-fracking-protest rule to demonstrations within Athens County.
Gadell-Newton also presented a request to have the prosecutor's office amend the indictment, to make it more accurately reflect the seriousness of what ffitch actually is accused of doing.
Saunders replied that the state is "willing and able to proceed" on the indictment as written.
Goldsberry noted that while the defense can always ask for such an amendment, "it is unusual for that to occur at arraignment," and usually happens later in the process.
Ffitch emerged from the courthouse to a heroine's welcome, with some 50 supporters aged senior citizen to toddler cheering her on.
"We're lucky to live in a country with a long and celebrated history of non-violent protest," she told the crowd. "I'm proud to be a part of this history."
She maintained that authorities are coming down hard on her to frighten off like-minded citizens.
"They're overcharging me; they're making an example of me," she alleged. "And who does this benefit?" Her answer: the "secretive and manipulative fracking industry." She said her case represents an effort to stand up for the right of citizens to peacefully protest "without fear and without panic."
As ffitch thanked the crowd for coming out, audience members called out, "Thank you! Thank you!" and "Thank you for your sacrifice!"
Gadell-Newton told the crowd that she hopes to win an acquittal from a jury for her client, and that if she does, "it will have an impact on the oil-and-gas industry."
THE ATTORNEY TOLD The Athens NEWS that by her reading of the bond conditions on ffitch, she cannot take part in any type of anti-fracking demonstration in Athens County, even if it's a legal one that just involves waving signs.
"I think that that is accurate," the attorney said. "I think that that violates her right to free speech, and is unduly burdensome."
Ffitch's partner, Peter Gibbons-Ballew, urged those in attendance to donate to her legal defense fund, which according to a website for the fund, had by Wednesday morning collected about $2,500. Gibbons-Ballew said most of what's been collected so far is needed to pay the retainer for the Columbus firm of Fitrakis & Gadell-Newton.
Fitrakis, who in addition to being a lawyer teaches political science at Columbus State Community College, is a long-time political and environmental activist and crusading journalist.
Ffitch has a trial tentatively scheduled for Nov. 8.