The trial for two Durango environmentalists that was set to begin Wednesday has been postponed while a Utah state appeals court decides whether to review two petitions that challenge key rulings in the case.
Rose Chilcoat and her husband, Mark Franklin, face felony charges that could result in up to 20 years in prison for closing the corral to a gate between Mexican Hat and Bluff on state trust lands in April 2017.
The rancher, Zane Odell, believes the couple closed the gate with the intent of blocking his cattle access to water. There was still an opening in the corral, but Odell said the action was linked with couple’s environmental activism.
Chilcoat’s and Franklin’s attorneys filed two petitions with the Utah Court of Appeals: one that says there was insufficient evidence to put the case to trial and another that seeks to disqualify San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws from prosecuting the case.
The defense believes Laws has a conflict of interest in the case with a bias against Chilcoat and the environmental group she worked for, the Great Old Broads for Wilderness. They say Laws is under pressure from locals in San Juan County to prosecute Chilcoat.
The Utah Court of Appeals postponed this week’s trial while it decides whether to fully review the petitions. An announcement about whether the court will decide to review the challenges could come this week.
If the Court of Appeals decides to review the petitions, it could take anywhere from six to nine months for a final decision.
“We view this as good news for our clients,” said Paul Cassell, a former federal prosecutor who served five years as a U.S. District Court judge that is now representing Chilcoat and Franklin.