Thursday, August 10, 2006

Not Quite the Trial of the Century

The date for my Big Trial had arrived. I was prepared to plead "no contest" to the charge of "violation of a lawful order" and to make a speech. I had come to the conclusion that "violation of a lawful order" was a charge too stupid to deserve much of a response.
I also intended to ask to be sentenced to "community service."
I felt as ready as I could be to go to court on the morning of July 21.
I got up early and packed my bag and I had breakfast.
Before long, it was time to go to the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.
When we arrived at the courthouse, Art informed me that the judge who was assigned to my case, Judge Theresa Buchanan, was a "hanging judge," who had no difficulty in sending protesters to jail for as long as six months.
Horrors!
I had not anticipated the possibility of being sent to jail. In fact, I was so confident that I would not be sent to jail that I had bought a round-trip ticket and was scheduled to return home that very evening. I was looking forward to going to my friend's family reunion and felt that a stay in jail would "cramp my style."
But still, I knew that there were always consequences when one chose to challenge the U.S. government's policies and that a jail sentence was always a possibility.
On the floor where the trial was to be held, a bunch of people were already clustered around the prosecutor. He was talking about the two choices that defendants could make in Judge Buchanan's court. Guilty or not guilty.
So much for the "no contest" plea.
I had to respond to this charge.
I toyed with the idea of pleading guilty and of saying, "Yes, I did it. I violated the order to stay in a little fenced-in area and protest for the benefit of my fellow protesters. I did it on purpose and I am proud of what I did and I am sure that I will do it again!"
I was told that proclamation of guilt would most likely annoy the judge and encourage her to send me to jail.
On the other hand, I could plead "not guilty."
I didn't believe that the order was lawful. Therefore, I had not violated a law. How could I plead guilty to violating a law that I had not violated?
I went into the courtroom with the other fourteen defendants when it was our turn.
There were two prosecutors and two separate trials for the protesters.
Two of the protesters were charged with "violation of a lawful order" for a protest that occurred at the Pentagon on April 13. The prosecutor said that he couldn't find one of the witnesses to testify against Brian De Rouen so he was requesting that his case be dismissed. "Dismissed!" said the judge, who simultaneously banged her gavel. Brian returned to the spectators' seats. It was Susan Crane's turn to be tried. The prosecutor had no trouble finding the witnesses to testify against her. Apparently, Judge Buchanan and Susan were acquainted.
Susan chose to defend herself. Her trial was relatively brief. At the end, the judge found her guilty. Judge Buchanan was trying to figure out a sentence for Susan, who said that she would not pay a fine and that she would not cooperate with terms of probation, especially the part about "following the law." "I'll follow God's laws," Susan declared. Judge Buchanan was not too impressed with that. "Thirty days in jail," announced the judge. "You are to be remanded to the custody of the U.S. marshals."
The U.S. marshal was ready to remove Susan from the courtroom at once. The second prosecutor asked that Susan be allowed to stay where she was as she had another trial that was about to begin. Judge Buchanan said that it was all right for Susan to remain in the courtroom for her second trial.
One of the defendants in the second trial, concerning the March 20 protest near the Pentagon, had chosen to plead guilty. He was fined $75, and he left the courtroom.
All of the other defendants in court on July 21 were stipulating as to identity. That meant that we acknowledged that we had crossed the fence on March 20 so that we could continue walking to the Pentagon to deliver a coffin to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Also, all of the defendants were ready to proceed "pro se" or without an attorney.
The prosecutor offered an opening statement and then one of the defendants, Maria Allwine, made an opening statement, about the war, Nuremberg Principles, and first amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom to peacefully assemble and to ask the government for redress of grievances. How could an order that so obviously violated our first amendment rights be lawful?
The prosecution presented one witness, Major William Stout, of the Pentagon Police. After the prosecution finished asking him questions, one of the defendants, Michelle Grise, began cross examining him. The cross examination went on and on. Among the things that it revealed was that there were approximately 100 police on duty that day. Major Stout said that he had designed the "free speech zone" for us. He admitted that it would be difficult for people in the Pentagon to see us or hear us. He said that there was another "free speech zone" near the Pentagon metro stop but that it was determined that we could not be there for the March 20 protest.
In fact, I and a number of others had been at the "free speech zone" near the Pentagon metro stop earlier that morning. I had noticed then that more police were around than usual and that they seemed prepared to make arrests. They were sporting plastic handcuffs on their belts and there were a variety of barricades that were not normally at that spot.
Michelle questioned Major Stout for quite some time. His story became more and more disjointed as she cross examined him. When she was finished, a few other defendants asked Major Stout a few questions.
After Major Stout was excused from the stand, the prosecution rested its case. One of the defendants, Jean Athey, made a motion for a directed judgment of acquittal. That is a standard motion in any trial. Weren't we surprised when Judge Buchanan said that the prosecution failed to identify any of us as having been at the scene. "Case dismissed," she announced and banged her gavel loudly.
We were stunned when the trial ended so abruptly. The prosecution was even more stunned.
The U.S. marshal removed Susan.
The rest of us left/
And thus ended the trial that was to be the Trial of the Century but actually was more like the Trial of the Moment.

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