Trial for LURC protester kicks off

Posted May 17, 2010, at 10:30 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The only protester still facing charges over a demonstration last year at the Land Use Regulation Commission’s meeting where it approved Plum Creek’s development plan will take the stand in his own defense Wednesday when his jury trial resumes at the Penobscot Judicial Center.

Monday was the first day of the trial for Christian “Will” Neils, 33, of Appleton, who is charged with refusing to submit to arrest, disorderly conduct and carrying a concealed weapon, a knife. He was one of six people arrested Sept. 23 at LURC’s meeting at the Ramada Inn on Odlin Road in Bangor.

The trial will not continue today due to events planned around the dedication of the new courthouse on Exchange Street.

Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy announced on April 30 in a press release that charges of criminal trespass and disorderly conduct had been dismissed against Jessica Dowling, 28, of Searsmont; Megan Gilmartin, 26, of Corinth; James Freeman, 61, of Verona Island; Emily Posner, 28, of Montville; and Ryan Clarke, 28, of East Corinth. A criminal trespass charge filed against Neils also was dropped.

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The six were arrested just as commissioners were preparing to approve Plum Creek’s controversial housing and resort plan for the Moosehead Lake region. The vote capped an intense, four-year public debate about economic development and land preservation in Maine’s North Woods.

All of those arrested except Posner, who is out of the country, attended the trial in support of Neils. None of them was called as witnesses.

In opening arguments, Michael Roberts, deputy district attorney for Penobscot County, told the jury that Neils was loud and disruptive, refused to submit to arrest and had a knife concealed in his pocket. The prosecutor said Bangor police acted properly in arresting him.

Defense attorney Leonard Sharon of Auburn said the police went too far in arresting his client, who was exercising his constitutional rights.

Bangor police Lt. Thomas Reagan testified Monday morning that he and other officers tried to remove protesters from the meeting after they “received a signal” from Assistant Attorney General Jerry Reid, who represented LURC at the meeting. Reagan said he had met before the meeting with Reid and knew the assistant attorney general would let him know “when the commissioners had had enough.”

Roberts played video obtained from two Bangor television stations that showed Neils approaching officers as they moved Kate Boverman, age unknown, of Greene away from the other protesters. Boverman was not arrested.

As Reagan moved her away from the other protesters, Neils approached him, the video showed. Reagan testified that Neils stepped in front of him and prevented him from removing Boverman from the room. The police officer said the defendant held up a hand in front of Reagan’s chest but did not touch him, then dropped his hands to his sides, balled his fist and took a “fighting stance.”

Neils was assigned to act as the police liaison during the protest at the LURC meeting, Andrea DeFrancesco, 37, of Franklin testified Monday. She told the jury her job was to distribute fliers to people in the crowd. DeFrancesco said the protest was organized and roles were assigned to protesters at a Bangor restaurant an hour before the commissioners were scheduled to meet.

Rep. Benjamin Marriner Pratt, D-Eddington, testified that he was at the meeting as an observer but was not part of the protest. He said it appeared to him that Neils put his hand out to Reagan as if to shake it, and Reagan put Neils’ arm behind his back while other officers helped push the defendant out of the room.

The video showed Neils yelling, “I’m the police liaison,” then, obscenities and repeatedly asking if he was under arrest. It also showed the jackknife in his pocket. Reagan said he had not seen the knife when Neils had gone in and out of the room before the protest began. Several defense witnesses testified they saw the knife in Neils’ pocket when he was at the meeting.

About 30 people gathered outside the Penobscot Judicial Center on Monday morning in support of Neils before the trial began.

Protesters gathered across Exchange Street from the courthouse. Many held handmade signs that said, “Plum Creek is the real criminal” and “Drop the charges. Drop the plan.”

Author Carolyn Chute read a handwritten statement criticizing corporate America and questioning why a man carrying a common “jackknife” had been charged with carrying a dangerous weapon.

“If every Mainer who carries a jackknife were arrested,” she said, “we’d have to build more prisons.”

Neils declined to comment on the case Monday.

If convicted, Neils faces up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $2,000.

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