Fake email trial: Protester found guilty of forgery

A Dunedin grandmother who wrote a phoney postponement email for a petroleum-industry conference has been found guilty.

After three hours' deliberation, a jury at the Dunedin District Court this afternoon found charges of forgery and using a forged document proven against 64-year-old Rosemary Anne Penwarden, who has spent this week on trial.

The defendant stood in the dock and remained composed as the verdicts were delivered, as did her supporters who packed the public gallery.

They sang Te Aroha after the judge had vacated the courtroom. 

The court heard Penwarden had regularly protested outside the annual Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand (Pepanz) conference, but in 2019 took her resistance further.

Just days before its opening at Queenstown’s Millennium Hotel on September 30, the defendant wrote a fake email, using Pepanz letterhead and industry logos, informing delegates the event had been postponed.

"We apologise for the inconvenience. We will endeavour to reimburse stakeholders for registrations, including flights to and from Queenstown where possible," she wrote.

"Our only recourse at this point is to completely reassess our approach to the basis of our industry, petroleum... But there is a silver lining to all of this: we will not be there to listen to that incessant chanting."

Organisers quickly reassured attendees the symposium was not cancelled and it went ahead as planned.

Penwarden admitted at the outset that she was behind the communication, but maintained it was satire and never intended to be taken seriously.

“You have a bit of fun doing that and it’s a form of protest,” she said.

She said she was in a state of “absolute astonishment” when, seven months after the conference, police seized her phone and laptop and laid charges in June 2020.

Yesterday, she read the email in question out from the witness box, which Crown prosecutor Richard Smith called “almost theatrical in its delivery”.

He stressed that true satire was usually communicated to the masses with the intention of making a point, gaining public support for the cause and holding its target to account.

While Penwarden said she distributed the email among media sources, Richard Smith said there was no evidence of that, nor was it ever published.

He said the defendant had not gained traction with her protest and so took a more extreme approach.

“It was just to cause disruption to the conference with a thinly veiled defence of satire woven into it,” he said.

“What better way to disrupt the conference than have some of the presenters not turn up?”

One day two of the trial, a statement prepared by climate scientist Prof Dr Carl-Friedrich Schleussner about the severity of the impending environmental catastrophe was produced by the defence.

“The science is clear... time is running out,” he wrote.

Richard Smith warned jurors the case was not about the legitimacy of the cause.

“You’re not here to decide whether fossil fuels are harming the environment. It’s not your decision about whether climate change is a real issue; I accept that it is,” he said.

“The severity of the problem simply goes to her motive.”

Penwarden’s counsel Ben Smith, in his closing address, asked the jury to consider his client’s character.

“A 64-year-old grandmother-of-two, came along, swore an oath and lied to you in front of her grandchildren? Is that what you think has happened? Are you sure?,” he said.

With their verdicts, it became clear that they were.

The court heard Penwarden had a previous trespass on her record.

Judge Michael Turner did not enter a conviction at the end of this trial, meaning a discharge without conviction remained a possibility.

Penwarden was granted bail and will be sentenced in September.

Rosemary Pendwarden told media today after the verdicts she respected the trial process and the...
Rosemary Pendwarden told media today after the verdicts she respected the trial process and the ultimate decision made by the jury. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH

'Wrong person on trial'

Outside court and surrounded by supporters, a smiling Penwarden said she would do nothing differently if she could turn back time.

“I’m still feeling really strong.” she said.

“I know in my heart I’m not a liar.”

She said she respected the trial process and the ultimate decision made by the jury.

“But I do want to say that it’s the wrong person on trial to start with. It should be the oil and gas industry. These are the ones who are destroying the future for all of us,” Penwarden said.

“This is a motivation for me to continue doing what I do.”

She confirmed she would apply for a discharge without conviction at sentencing, but said the world’s future was much more frightening than the prospect of appearing in court.

“Coming down the line is way more scary than me having a little conviction,” she said.