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Day Five 11.3.08

In Trial Notes on November 3, 2008 at 5:59 pm

Federal Courthouse, San Francisco. Relentless rain–the kind of storm that hits this place once every six-months. The streets of the Tenderloin flooded with filthy water as one approached Civic Center.

The storm only letting up now as I watch the sun set through the first open skies since the last session of the Chevron trial.

Witness: Larry Bowoto

In court today, we heard the conclusion of Larry Bowoto’s testimony. Bob Mittelstaedt continued his cross-examination of the witness with questions on how the Ilaje protesters prepared for the Parabe protest. Delving further into the minutiae of events, the testimony established that Mr. Bowoto was tasked with enforcing the Ilaje elders’ rules for the protest and ensuring that no one in the boarding party carried weapons aboard their boats.

In one interesting line of questioning, Mr. Mittelstaedt asked Mr. Bowoto if he understood peaceful protest to mean that the tugboat captain at Parabe would have been free to go if he desired. Bowoto said that yes, the captain had a right to leave but that to his knowledge, the captain never asked to leave.

The question of whether the barge and platform workers were free to depart is becoming central to the case; according to all the evidence we’ve seen so far, Chevron never asked to remove its employees and never brought in boats with which to evacuate them. Similarly, no evidence has shown that the tugboat attempted to leave and was held against the captain’s will. The defense is basing its counter-accusation of hostage-taking on the assumption that the Parabe protesters restricted the movements of the platform workers. Yet, they still have offered no evidence to support the insinuation.

Bert Voorhees, attorney for the plaintiffs, returned to question Mr. Bowoto on his understanding of the terms ‘trespass’ and ‘piracy’ in reference to the March 1998 action of the the Itsekiri people. Mr. Bowoto made clear that the Ilaje believed that the Itsekiri were trespassing on the Ilaje’s legitimate claims: Chevron was operating on Ilaje lands, and yet they had made a more generous offer of jobs to the Itsekiri.

Mr. Mittelstaedt returned for one last round of questions where he worked in the accusation that the protesters poured diesel fuel on the barge and threatened to light it. Would Mr. Bowoto consider such an act peaceful? “If this happened it would not be peaceful; but this never happened, none of the protesters poured diesel on the barge.”

Witness: Dr. Hugh McGowan

Plaintiffs called Dr. Hugh McGowan, an expert in criminal justice and an experienced hostage-negotiator. Dr. McGowan presented his opinion on the Parabe raid, based on the depositions and documents furnished to him by the plaintiffs.

In his opinion, the situation aboard the platform did not rise to the level of a hostage taking: it most resembled an act of civil disobedience, like a sit-in. He cited the background of Ilaje overtures to negotiate with Chevron and a letter from the Ondo State military administration to Chevron asking that the oil company cease discriminating against the Ilaje communities in its dispensation of jobs and scholarships. Dr. McGowan also stated that he believed that the negotiations between Chevron and the Ilaje had been cut short prematurely by the military assault on Parabe platform.

During Dr. McGowan’s testimony, plaintiffs’ counsel entered several documents into evidence which contradict defense’s portrayal of the situation aboard the platform. In two faxed memos, Scott Davis, the director of Chevron Nigeria Ltd.’s crisis management team, wrote to a Chevron official in California that “the villagers were unarmed and the situation has remained calm since their arrival…We expect the situation to be resolved soon.” These memos were sent at 6:00pm, 5.27.08, the evening before the military raid.

Dr. McGowan also observed that the means by which Chevron and the military carried out the raid were insufficient for either a rescue operation, or for an arrest of the protestors. Chevron’s helicopters dropped off 20 or so soldiers and then left the barge. Chevron brought no boats with which to evacuate the people on board. What then did Chevron intend to do with its workers?

Dr. McGowan faced a very severe cross-examination from counsel for the defendants. John Cline–who frankly savaged Philemon Ebiesuwa a few days ago–delivered another merciless cross-examination. With rapid-fire questions, carefully constructed to unfurl Mr. Cline’s own argument, Dr. McGowan’s credibility as an expert was battered. It was clear that Dr. McGowan had only reviewed a selection of documents and depositions and had based his opinion on those. Mr. Cline pointed out numerous depositions by Parabe workers that Dr. McGowan did not review, suggesting that the jury was seeing an incomplete picture of events. Bear in mind though, this is a nine-year case with a mountain of paper behind it.

One couldn’t help feeling sorry for Dr. McGowan; Cline’s severe questioning made it seem like a grave sin that McGowan couldn’t identify the location of a 510 area code. Once again, Chevron’s team has confirmed that minutiae revealed through a well-crafted line of interrogation can take on the luster of damning evidence.

In the end, Dr. McGowan did the best he could. But he was visibly fatigued by several hours of Cline’s hypotheticals: What would have happened if Chevron met the Ilaje’s demands? What if they paid the money requested? What if they continued negotiating? What if their negotiator returned to shore to talk with the Ilaje elders and was harmed? What if someone lit a match and the platform blew sky-high? Would no one have died? Would everyone have died? What if? What if? Would Dr. McGowan still opine that Chevron bringing in the military was unreasonable if everyone died in a horrible conflagration because the negotiations continued another day?

Witness: Abel Ogburu

After Dr. McGowan’s ordeal, it came as a relief to hear that the deposition from the next witness would be read aloud in lieu of his direct testimony. In his dep, Abel Ogburu–a Chevron employee aboard the Parabe platform–stated that Mr. Simeon, the Parabe platform supervisor who communicated with Ogburu during the protest, never informed him that the protesters had demanded a halt to production. Simeon also never indicated to Mr. Ogburu that the Ilaje had issued any threats. Finally, Simeon never indicated that the Ilaje had restricted the workers’ movements or had confined them.

It seems that Ogburu’s deposition just put a few cracks in defense counsel’s hostage-taking argument.

And with that the day ended. Tomorrow’s session will bring more witness testimony.

And do remember to vote šŸ™‚

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