Jessee Appeal Victory is Win, Win, Win and Win Again
On November 7, 2018, the North Dakota Supreme Court ruled in favor of Water Protector Rebecca Jessee, reversing her lower court conviction arising out of a November 15, 2016 prayer walk in commemoration of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Jessee and 26 others, including her partner Mark Hebert of Reno, NV, and Brian O’Keefe of Santa Fe, NM, were arrested close to a railway track near Mandan. The arrests were aggressive and O’Keefe suffered substantial injuries including broken ribs that required hospitalization.
The walk had attempted to access a DAPL storage site to pray and participate in a ceremony dedicated to calling attention to the troubles that arise from “man camps” – temporary housing for oilfield workers that become havens for gendered violence and human trafficking of Indigenous women and girls. Police blocked the group at the
Brian O'Keefe's trial had been set for November 27, 2018. But on November 16, 2018, the state filed a motion asking for a continuance on the grounds that an "essential witness" (unnamed) had "unresolved conflicts” (unspecified). In her reply motion, Power urged the prosecution to either proceed with the trial as scheduled or dismiss based on the Jessee decision. On November 23, 2018, the Court dismissed O'Keefe's case.
On December 6, 2018, citing their decision in the Jessee case, the North Dakota Supreme Court reversed the lower court conviction against Mark Hebert. Also on December 6, the Court denied the prosecution’s request to rehear the Jessee decision. “The Supreme Court in North Dakota has made it clear that my clients and Mark Hebert did not tamper with any public service as they were attempting to march to a DAPL site to protest the railroad tracks, ordered them to disperse and proceeded to arrest them.
The procession was to commemorate the disappearance of Indigenous women,” said Power, who also represented O’Keefe. WPLC volunteer attorney Melinda Power argued the appeal before the five Supreme Court justices on September 7, 2018 in Bismarck, ND. Power focused her argument on the definition of tampering. In their ruling, citing numerous precedents from North Dakota case law, the justices agreed that Jessee’s mere presence at the railroad tracks did not constitute “tampering” and they reversed the guilty verdict.
“I feel a weight lifted off me from what was a burdensome and scary process, of which I had no prior experience,” said O’Keefe. “It was a big dark space with legal monsters. But the WPLC was extremely helpful in getting me together with Melinda who showed the determination and tolerance (of me) to ‘stay on the case’. It was that effort and commitment that provided the outcome— dismissal. I feel much relief that I can get on with my life. My family shares in that. I will continue being an activist particularly in the arena of decolonization.”