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Comments from Attorney, Mark Goldstone
Fast & Vigil highlight from Abe Bonowitz
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7 Cleared in Protest At Supreme Court
By Arthur Santana
A D.C. Superior Court judge acquitted seven death penalty protesters yesterday, saying they were arrested inappropriately although the law prohibits demonstrations such as theirs on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ruling in the non-jury trial, which Judge Mildred M. Edwards said was one of the toughest in her career as a trial judge, has no binding effect on future cases of trespassing at the Supreme Court, but the decision may embolden others, legal experts said.
Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the National Capital Area of the ACLU, said the government cannot appeal the acquittal. But he warned that while the ruling may encourage others to demonstrate on the steps, they should be aware that the Supreme Court police are under no obligation to stop arresting people and that other Superior Court judges can easily convict them. Those acquitted yesterday said they planned to protest on the steps again.
Spitzer said, "A decision of a trial court . . . is not a binding precedent that any other court has to follow. Not even another judge of the same court."
The defendants, all from outside the area, climbed the steps of the Supreme Court on Jan. 17 and unfurled a 30-foot-long banner that read, "Stop Executions!" Their demonstration violated a law prohibiting such actions in the Supreme Court Building or on its grounds.
Four of the seven defended themselves, making the same twofold argument: that the First Amendment allowed them to stage a demonstration on the high court's highest step, and that the Supreme Court police did not give them adequate warning before they seized their banner and arrested them.
"We had a message that needed to be said, and we were in our constitutional rights to do so," said protester Abraham Bonowitz, 35, director of the Abolitionist Action Committee, a Florida-based anti-death penalty group.
"The plaza is the property of the people, and the people should be able to go there," he said. "This decision . . . should be an indicator that one day that plaza will be free."
The January protest was the first time in four years that the Supreme Court restrictions were challenged. In 1998, a preacher knelt in prayer at the first step of the building to mark the National Day of Prayer. He was arrested and found guilty.
In January 1997, Bonowitz was among 18 people arrested after unfurling a banner on the Supreme Court steps. Seven members of that group used the First Amendment defense but were convicted and given suspended sentences.
Ruling in that case, D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert E. Morin cited federal law, saying that even peaceful demonstrations violate the "dignity and decorum" of the court. Morin's ruling was upheld by the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Judge Edwards said in court yesterday that she was uncertain she agreed with the appeals court. She also said she did not find probable cause that the protesters were given adequate warning before they were arrested, citing images from a surveillance camera, used by defense attorney Mark L. Goldstone.
"This ruling will obviously have a lot of currency in anti-death penalty circles. The word will get out across the political spectrum that some civil disobedients were acquitted," said Jamin B. Raskin, a professor of law at American University.
"If in fact they were commiting a crime, no warning was really required," Raskin said.
Edwards said, "Cases like this put a judge to the test." She declined to comment after her ruling. Kathy Arberg, spokeswoman for the Supreme Court, also declined to comment.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
SUPREME COURT SEVEN ACQUITTED!!!!
"...I am finding you NOT GUILTY!" With those words, DC Superior Court Judge Edwards acquitted myself, Peggy Connally and Rick Halperin from Texas, Dan Giffen and Scott Langley from Massachusetts, Ron Kaz from South Carolina, and Pam Dyer from Canada. We were all stunned, but she had found discrepancies in the testimony of the three police officers, and that was enough to allow her to rule on her conscience. Attorney Mark Goldstone put it this way:
Here is my statement on today's trial and victory.
"Today's court ruling by Judge Mildred Edwards of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, in acquitting 7 anti-death penalty activists who were charged with an unlawful demonstration; namely unfurling a 28 foot long by 4 foot wide banner that said "STOP EXECUTIONS" on January 17, 2002 on the steps of the US Supreme Court, was a huge victory for the First Amendment and the anti-death penalty cause.
Judge Edwards implictly criticized a recent DC Court of Appeals ruling which upheld the constitutionality of a 1949 federal law that forbids any form of expressive conduct on the steps or plaza of the US Supreme Court. So, the Government's attempts to claim that the steps or plaza of the US Supreme Court are off limits to First Amendment activity has been called into question by the Judge's decision.
In addition to the First Amendment free speech win, the protesters were able to explain their anti-death penalty motivations in demonstrating at the Court on January 17- the anniversary date of the resumption of the death penalty in America. Protesters were able to explain to the Court why they chose the Court as the location for their protest, and were able to spread their message, which has gained wider acceptance recently, as the Supreme Court struck down the execution of retarded people and the sentencing by judges, not juries. The tide is turning against the death penalty, and these 7 brave activists deserve credit for spreading this message."
My personal highlight (from 2002 Fast & Vigil) so far was today's visit by the prosecutor in the
Supreme Court Seven case (see below). He made it a point to tell me that
he and most other prosecutors he knows actually oppose the death penalty,
and he did that as we were walking to the AbolitionWear
|Abolitionist Action Comittee (AAC)
c/o PMB 335, 2603 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hwy,
Gainesville, FL 32609
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