Water Protector Steve Martinez Ordered Released

District Court Judge Traynor, Government Agree with Counsel for Steve Martinez That Finding of Contempt and Sanctions Were Imposed Without Authority and Must Be Terminated

Bismarck, ND – Water Protector Steve Martinez, who was confined for his principled refusal to participate in a federal grand jury investigation, was ordered to be “released from custody forthwith” late in the day on Monday, February 22. District Court Judge Daniel M. Traynor agreed with the arguments of counsel that the finding of contempt and associated “coercive confinement” at Burleigh Morton Detention Center were imposed by a Magistrate Judge who lacked authority to impose such sanctions. He ordered Mr. Martinez’ confinement immediately terminated, and confirmed that all other litigation related to grand jury proceedings must take place before a District Court Judge.

The Government served Mr. Martinez with a new grand jury subpoena prior to his release.

Steve Martinez
Steve Martinez | Photo: Courtesy of the Water Protector Legal Collective

“Unlike all other legal proceedings in the U.S., federal grand juries are secret, and are almost entirely controlled by the prosecutor,” said Martinez’ attorney, Moira Meltzer-Cohen. “As such, they are ripe for abuse and have a history of being used for politically-targeted harassment.” She continued, “This ruling terminates, but does not remedy, three weeks of categorically unlawful incarceration endured by Mr. Martinez. That the Government’s response was to re-subpoena him speaks to the perversity of this process.” The new subpoena demands his presence on March 3, 2021, before the same Grand Jury, which is ostensibly investigating injuries sustained by Water Protector Sophia Wilansky.

Wilansky, then only 20 years old, nearly lost her arm on November 20, 2016, when law enforcement unleashed projectiles and fire hoses on people gathered in freezing temperatures to peacefully voice their opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (“DAPL”) on sacred and environmentally sensitive land. Wilansky sued Morton County for their role in her injury; Morton County has implied, in the apparent absence of evidence, that Ms. Wilansky was harmed by other Water Protectors, and even that she is responsible for her own injuries. Curiously, the critical evidence in her case – shrapnel removed from her arm after an initial 16-hour surgery – was immediately seized by the FBI in 2016. Despite Ms. Wilansky’s continued attempts to retrieve that evidence, the government refuses to disclose it – whether due to irregularity in evidence-preservation, or to shield Morton County from liability remains unclear.

DAPL Protest
November 20, 2016, law enforcement unleashed projectiles and fire hoses on people gathered in freezing temperatures to peacefully voice their opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

In 2016, the Government withdrew an identical subpoena after Mr. Martinez refused to testify on the basis that the grand jury was an attempt to displace blame for Ms. Wilansky’s injuries onto innocent Water Protectors. A second subpoena was served four years later, on November 10, 2020 – four days after the judge in Ms. Wilansky’s civil case authorized parties to compel disclosure of the critical physical evidence withheld by the FBI since 2016. Martinez argued the subpoena was a hasty attempt by the Government to give the appearance of an ongoing criminal investigation, in order to justify their continued refusal to disclose the central evidence in the case against Morton County. He was jailed February 3, 2021, for his refusal to testify, and released yesterday on the Judge’s Order, after service of a third subpoena.

Mr. Martinez and his counsel remain skeptical of the subpoena and intend to challenge its validity. “This grand jury certainly appears to have been convened for the primary purpose of manufacturing an ‘ongoing criminal investigation’ such as would justify the Government’s refusal to hand over definitive evidence in a related civil proceeding,” said Ms. Meltzer-Cohen. “Mr. Martinez has no obligation to comply with a subpoena that was issued in other than good faith, and we will use every lawful means to demonstrate to the Court that, at the very least, the circumstances surrounding this grand jury deserve serious scrutiny.”

Mr. Martinez was released from confinement around 7 p.m. Central time, on Monday. He looks forward to continuing to support Indigenous-led environmental movements.

Mni Wiconi! (Water is Life!)


Steve Martinez is represented by Attorneys Ralph Hurvitz and Moira Meltzer-Cohen.

To learn more about Steve Martinez and the Water Protectors visit:
www.waterprotectorlegal.org and www.SupportSteveMartinez.com

Questions regarding support should be directed to: SupportSteveMartinez@protonmail.com