CHRISTIANSBURG — Provoking a state police officer in a courthouse hallway brought a Mountain Valley Pipeline protester a 30-day jail sentence Thursday — although protester Jammie Dewayne Hale can remain free while appealing his conviction for disorderly conduct, a judge said.
Hale, 47, of Pembroke, a vocal opponent of the natural gas pipeline, has been a frequent visitor to Montgomery County courts in the past year, first being charged and acquitted of assaulting a pipeline security worker, then coming to support other protesters who faced charges.
It was in November, after a hearing in which a pipeline opponent was convicted of assaulting construction workers, that Hale got into an altercation with Virginia State Police Special Agent W.S. Mitchell, who had been a witness in the case.
Thursday’s lengthy hearing in Montgomery County General District Court included testimony from Mitchell and from two of Hale’s friends and yielded differing accounts of who had instigated the men’s encounter. All agreed it ended with Hale in handcuffs, lying on the hallway floor.
A courthouse security video of a section of the altercation was shown repeatedly but the camera angle included only the men’s legs.
Hale did not testify. But after Judge Jerry Mabe said that he would find him guilty, Hale loudly denied any disorderly conduct and said he had been assaulted by the state police officer. As the hearing wrapped up, some among the more than 20 people there to support Hale hissed “lying a — pig” and “crooked a — pig” at Mitchell.
According to Mitchell, his run-in with Hale began outside the November hearing, when he walked out of the courtroom and Hale accused him of lying, not at the hearing, but during a July incident in which another protester had been arrested. When Mitchell told Hale to back off, Hale followed him down the hallway, asking what he was going to do about it and repeatedly calling Mitchell a “motherf---er,” Mitchell testified.
When Mitchell told Hale he was pushing his luck and that Mitchell was was going to go to the men’s bathroom, Hale moved in front of the bathroom door, Mitchell testified. Hale said that he had to use the bathroom as well and, still cursing at Mitchell, asked again what the officer would do, Mitchell said.
Mitchell said he grabbed Hale’s left arm, spun him around, and while holding both Hale’s arms behind his back, walked him away from the bathroom and into the hallway, where there were about 15 protesters and supporters, as well as sheriff’s deputies. Hale went limp and the officer eased him to the floor, Mitchell said.
Mitchell said that Hale’s language, his aggressive behavior, and a statement he had made in July, telling Mitchell that protests would become more violent when the pipeline reached Hale’s property in Giles County, contributed to his feeling threatened by Hale.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Obenshain noted that a threat was not required to prove disorderly conduct. Still, the defense’s two witnesses said it was Mitchell, not Hale, who was threatening.
Phillip Flagg of Austin, Texas, who had blocked the pipeline’s West Virginia-to-Pittsylvania County route as a tree-sitter and who last month had a charge dropped from allegedly chaining himself to a structure in the pipeline’s path, testified that he saw Mitchell initiate the back-and-forth with Hale. After the November hearing, Mitchell walked out of the courtroom and said something about watching Hale, Flagg testified. Hale asked what Mitchell was watching for, Flagg said.
The two men continued talking as they walked down the hallway, with Mitchell saying something about knowing where Hale lived and Hale asking if the officer was threatening him, Flagg testified.
Called back to the stand later in the hearing, Mitchell denied telling Hale that he knew where he lived, saying it would have been unethical to make a remark like that. In the courtroom’s spectator area, Hale’s supporters guffawed.
Flagg and the other defense witness, Connie Fitzsimmons of Blacksburg, said Hale had held open the bathroom door for Mitchell.
Fitzsimmons said that she could not hear what Mitchell and Hale said to one another but said she “saw aggression in their bodies” in the way they leaned toward one another.
Mabe said that while the courthouse was the place to settle disagreements, the justice system depended on having an orderly process. Whatever was said in the hallway, when Hale moved past Mitchell to stand in the bathroom door – a motion captured on the video – he crossed a line, the judge said.
Defense attorney Ryan Hamrick of Christiansburg said Hale was appealing the conviction.