By Taylor Reese, Pax Christi USA Program Associate
Eighteen defendants from Veterans for Peace and their sympathizers went to trial in DC Superior Court on Tuesday for their March 19th arrest. This protest action was held on the 8th anniversary of the United States’ entry into Iraq; sadly, this was also the day before Barack Obama announced NATO’s imminent air offensive in Libya.
At 9:30 am, the defendants gathered in courtroom 219 before Judge Russell F. Canan, Jr. Thirteen of them settled into the jury box to distinguish themselves as defendants pro se—in other words, as their own legal representatives. All were facing 2 charges: failure to obey a lawful order (“demonstrators in groups of 25 or more, holding signs, may not remain stationary,” apparently), and a more ambiguous charge of blocking passage or “incommoding” pedestrians. They faced fines between $100-$1500, and up to 90 days in prison.
One, Mr. Schlesinger, decided to plead guilty, but reasserted his reasons for protest, and referred all to his Facebook page, Gandhian Resistance.
In preliminaries to the trial, William Duffee, JD, laid out his arguments for introducing experts (e.g. former CIA analyst Ray McGovern) on international factual evidence relevant to the protesters’ alleged speech crimes. Interestingly, he also stated that the defendants would not be required to use the famous “necessity defense”—that a lesser crime had to be committed to prevent a greater—because the defendants would not be admitting culpability to any crime. Judge Canan, however, ruled against the witnesses, and noted that the necessity defense would not be valid anyhow.
The trial itself opened with statements from WWII veteran Jay Wenk, and David Barrows. Wenk dropped the first hint of what would become a major theme of the trial: the wild celebrants who crowded the same area on May 1st, the night of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, whose presence late into the night was never controlled by police. This raised the question of “selective enforcement,” which would later become a major issue in the trial.
Witnesses and evidence brought out by the government prosecutors contained some surprises. While the vagueness and justice of the laws in question were, of course, contested, the prosecutor had a more difficult time presenting substantial evidence that these defendants in particular were in violation of those laws. An important piece of evidence, a video of the arrests taken by DC Park Police, had not been edited to display particular defendants, and none of them, in the end, could be identified as stationary sign-holders.
The trial continues today, and a full report will be available soon.