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Punished for exercising our constitutional rights?
The contrast between the two Judges couldn’t have been starker. Judge Peter Cahill and Judge Ronald Abrams both serve on the Hennepin County’s Fourth District Bench. Both Judges were assigned criminal trespass cases for nonviolent protest at the entrance to the corporate headquarters of Minnesota’s largest war profiteer, Alliant Techsystems (ATK). The same defense arguments were made in both courtrooms, the former in 2010, the latter this week. The same Eden Prairie Prosecutor, different Judges. The results were significantly different: Judge Cahill thanked the defendants for interesting and enlightening testimony and fined us $1 or one hour of community service – hopefully at a local children’s hospital, he added, noting in our testimony about our concern over civilian causalities of war.
While Judge Abrams treated us courteously and thanked both the defense and prosecution for our behavior in court, the sentencing differed widely. 10 days in jail; two days in jail; 68 hours of community service; 32 hours of community service. When is the last time you hear a Judge order 90 days in jail for an 89 year-old nonviolent defendant who is a nun in declining health? Yes, he stayed 87 of those days for a year in mandating the 32 hours of community service but his sentence was the maximum allowed under the trespass law of Minnesota.
To further add to the disparity, the 12 nonviolent defendants were repeatedly offered a plea bargain deal if we chose to forgo our right to a jury trial and enter a no contest plea to the charges: any amount of self-reporting community service to any local non-profit organization would be the prosecutor’s recommendation to the court. All we had to do is take the guilty plea.
“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” is an adage I’ve heard (and repeated) many times. In fact, if we choose to engage in civil resistance for the sake of peace and justice, we would do well to always be prepared to face the legal consequences of our actions.
The Constitution gives us the right to a jury trial of our “peers” but the way the system operates when one looks closely from behind the defendants table in the courtroom is a process which often removes citizens with well-formed, educated opinions when the jury pool is whittled down to who will actually hear the case. Strict rules of evidence and what testimony will be allowed in front of a jury controls the process – treating as “hearsay” and “irrelevant” the years of study and investigation done by principled protestors. The jury is instructed to follow the precise letter of the law, the spirit of which be damned.
One can go “pro se”, act as one’s own attorney but you aren’t invited back to the inner sanctum of the courtroom where the prosecutor can huddle with the judge, planning out sentencing strategy. When one co-defendant tried to go through the back door to request that the microphones be turned off during a break in the proceedings so the defendants could discuss issues without them being recorded or overheard, he was briskly told he could not be “back there” because of the security risk – even though he had gone through the same security checkpoint on the second floor as any prosecutor would.
We are told by the Prosecutor that “more than 95%” of all his cases are “settled out of court” with a type of plea bargain. The number of cases overwhelms the Court as the budgets for the judicial branch continue to face cuts to both staff and finances. The entire system would collapse if only a few more defendants would request their right to a jury trial. Judge Cahill asked his defendants if they were will to accept an official “hearing” rather than a jury trial and I suspect his sentence reflected his appreciation for our willingness to avoid the more confrontational style of a jury trial.
But defendants shouldn’t have to make such choices when a trial by jury is a constitutional right. I went in to the Courtroom this week a skeptic about the type of “justice” I’d receive. I remain skeptical. The Judge was given input from the Prosecutor about my past convictions (although Patrick Leach, the Prosecutor, probably didn’t do a thorough search of all the defendants) but I’m certain he did not mention that 3 times Hennepin County juries have acquitted me of the same charge for the same type of protest. In jury trials for this offense, I’m still 3 wins (not guilty) with now two losses; a batting average of .600, not bad for a non-lawyer.
I’m glad to do the 10 days in jail if it exposes our “judicial system” for what it is: straining at gnats while swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:24) when it continues to fail to challenge illegal wars, indiscriminate weapons, and predatory bankers but instead fills our jails and prisons with those who are predominately on the margins of our society. Our jails are filled with people who are mentally ill and/or physically addicted but instead of treatment, we specialize in punishment. A friend of mine in Georgia who recently was jailed because of his nonviolent support of immigrants told me he experienced his jail time as a sacrament. His friend told him, “Being imprisoned for the Gospel is sacramental.” Lets hope I can keep that in mind when it is time to “do my time”!