By Anne Meador
Charges against an anti-fracking activist will no longer proceed after the prosecutor placed the case on an inactive docket at a hearing in Maryland District Court for Calvert County on November 23.
The outcome of Monday’s hearing is the latest development in the fall-out ensuing from a protest against a fracked gas export terminal almost ten months ago.
Defendant Carling Sothoron, a Baltimore educator, climbed up the steel arm of a crane on a Dominion Cove Point construction site last February to drop a banner that read, “Dominion get out. Don’t frack Maryland. No gas exports. Save Cove Point.”
The stunt was an effort to draw attention to the facility’s potential to bring fracking and thousands of miles of pipelines to Maryland, she said in an interview with Between the Lines. She was also concerned with exaggerated benefits and negative consequences to the local community.
Sothoron was convicted of trespassing last April and given a suspended sentence of 40 days and three years’ probation. She declined to comment after the hearing today.
Her climbing partner, Heather Doyle, was also convicted of trespassing and opted to serve 33 days in jail in lieu of probation.
The episode didn’t end there, though. After trial, Doyle and Sothoron filed complaints with the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office, claiming that deputies who were called to the scene endangered them unnecessarily.
As she described the incident, Sothoron said that Dfc. Stephen Esposito pulled on the rope securing her to the crane and “made [her] question whether the cop had any idea of what he was doing.” Doyle further claimed that another officer choked her and purposefully stepped on her.
The officers deny all wrongdoing. Charges of making false statements were initiated on the basis of the complaints.
Today, Sothoron’s charge was put on the stet docket without conditions for a year with the possibility that the charge will be dropped after that time. Doyle’s next hearing is on January 11, 2016. She will likely face trial by jury.
Sothoron avoided a conviction and possible jail sentence, but the question remains whether prosecution was intended to chill protest against the Cove Point terminal.
SEED Coalition, the organization Sothoron and Doyle are affiliated with, believes that the Sheriff’s Office is pursuing a course of retaliation and intimidation. They call it an “obvious attempt to silence dissent against Dominion and its export terminal.”
The Sheriff’s Office has been accused of a conflict of interest because of the unusual relationship between the law enforcement agency and the giant energy corporation which operates the terminal. Paying the salaries of eleven deputies, known as the Special Ops Team, Dominion essentially deploys a private security force wearing County law enforcement uniforms.
Facing budget shortfalls, the County itself is staking its financial future on the Cove Point project proceeding as expected.