The jury was out for only 30 minutes – the shortest deliberation I’ve experienced in at least 7 other jury trials. When Judge William Price made clear before the noon break that he wouldn’t permit jury instructions which would allow jurors to consider our justification, it was almost certain to me that we would be convicted. That is why we had started out day 2 of our St. Patrick’s Day 7 Drone Protest trial with what is referred to as an “offer of proof”.
Out of the presence of a jury, the offer of proof is testimony submitted for the record which could be used in the appeal of a case of testimony which is disallowed in the official “evidence” the jury considers in rendering their verdict. Michele Naar Obed was sworn in (actually she affirmed rather than swore the oath which was to tell the truth – but not necessarily the “whole truth”) and took the stand to tell part of her story. She lived in Iraq for three years, working with Christian Peacemaker Teams, first in Baghdad and then in the Kurdish region in the north. She joined CPT realizing saying “No” to war was not enough – she wanted to say “Yes” to something that worked to prevent war and heal its wounds. She told the judge, “I have witnessed drones flying over northern Iraq and I’ve met [extended] family members where an entire family with 5 children were killed in their car after visiting family members in the mountains by a missile fired by a drone. She met another mother whose child was only “pieces” and asked “how can I bury her with so little left?” That woman grabbed Michele’s arm, knowing she was an American, telling her, “Can’t you tell people [in your country] to stop this?” She told the Judge she “has taken numerous opportunities to try to deliver that message from this Kurdish woman and when this [nonviolent] action was proposed, I felt I needed to try to talk about it [to members of the military at the airbase.”
Elliott Adams, followed her powerful testimony with his own. He described volunteering for Vietnam as a paratrooper and had also served in the U.S. Military in Korea and Alaska. After his military service, he traveled to several war zones, including Panama, Gaza, and Grenada to talk to others and see for himself the realities of war. He served in public office for about 15 years, worked in the Fire Department, served on the School Board, done many things in a life-long effort to make this a better world.
“I took an oath to defend the US Constitution when I entered the military … and [that oath] has no expiration date. … I went to the Iowa National Guard Base to uphold the law. … to exercise my First Amendment rights and to petition my Government for a redress of grievances. … The rulings of the Nuremberg Tribunals obligates me to act. … Article 6 of the Us Constitution … and Supreme Court decisions uphold International Law as part of our own law.” He went on to cite several US Supreme Court decisions about the relevancy of International Law and referred to the Law of War and the illegality of indiscriminate weapons. He then added that drones also violate US laws as well, citing the War Crimes Act. He referenced the Geneva Accords. As a treaty signed by our government, “It is part of our law, not separate from US law, and it applies in every court.”
His voice cracked and quieted considerably when he got more personal: “When I was in Vietnam, I was tested about whether I would follow small laws – orders from my [military] officers – or follow the big laws,” referring to International laws and norms about warfare. “And I followed the small laws. If someone had warned me, I might not have crossed that line.” [Referring to that line between acting morally and what has now haunted him for decades since his time in Vietnam – not crossing a property line at the National Guard base.] “I needed to warn my fellow brothers and sisters.”
The former National President of Veterans For Peace, Elliott Adams, began to list all the ways he’s tried to deliver the message including writing letters to Congress, the President, to the editor. He’s testified before Congress. “The Nuremberg Principles 4 and 7 say I must act.” He described the Hellfire missile [fired by military drones] as equal to 14 sticks of dynamite; it is by it’s nature indiscriminate. Where they are exploded will have “collateral damage.”
He concluded with a plea to the Judge, asking rhetorically, “Where should I try to seek a redress of grievances? At a Starbucks?, at the Salvation Army?, the Post Office since it is a Federal facility? – No, the air base [where these weapons will be operated from].” He lamented the fact that according to the rules of war, if military drones are “piloted” from this Des Moines airbase, this area will become a legitimate military target.
Other defendants were willing to add to the “Offer of Proof” but our lawyers felt this powerful testimony was enough to lay an adequate basis for a future appeal if we decide to go that route. At that point, 8:50 in the morning, the State rested its case and our lawyers entered their motion for a directed verdict of acquittal on two grounds: the State’s witnesses didn’t know exactly where the property line was for the base, claiming it was the responsibility of the Civil Engineers; and, the defendants attempted to raise a justification and the State’s evidence did not show we didn’t have justification.
The Prosecutor claimed he just needed to establish the elements of the trespass defense and argued that “without justification” is not an element unless it is recognized by the court as an affirmative defense. He stated they had “proven it was private property” and the Major testified they were at least “50 yards past [the painted line].”
Judge Price said “when someone is there to petition the government, just having [military] officers telling them to leave is not sufficient.” He went on to point out that we were advised to leave by both the military and the Des Moines Police, saying he felt this was sufficient evidence to give the decision to the jury. “At this point, no justification has been raised [since the offer of proof was not delivered before the jury]. The State can’t anticipate all possible defenses. …Reasonable minds can differ on this.” He stated the case should continue to go to the jury and dismissed the Motion to Dismiss. He said both Michele and Elliott could testify about their personal backgrounds and history but his ruling on the Motion in Limine would continue meaning they couldn’t talk about their “philosophical beliefs” in describing their attempts to deliver it [our letter of indictment] to the military.
“The place to petition the Government is not in this Courtroom but rather the halls of Congress and on the streets of America. It does not give rise to justification to being in a particular place,” the Judge stated. Funny, but I was always taught in high school civics that the Judiciary was a third and co-equal branch of Government and all three should be held responsible for the failings and oversights and excesses of the other two. I guess not in his courtroom!
The Judge had previously noted that some law students serving as interns at the Iowa Appeals Court were present to observe and looked at them when he remarked wryly, “The Appellate Court has given us no guidance in this matter,” referring to the “without justification” language in the trespass law. After the Prosecutor remarked, “We’re not here to punish speech but to punish conduct. We’re not here about the First Amendment,” Michele said, “I have a question. If we carried chains and a lock [to lock the gates of the airbase closed], would the Prosecutor try to use that as evidence against us?” after the Judge stated he would not allow the letter of indictment we carried into evidence. The Judge allowed that we would be permitted to say our intent was to present that document but said what we carried “was a slippery slope. You could carry a book [and what it to be submitted as “evidence” for the jury to consider].” As a sop to the defendants for ruling against all our other motions, he did allow the photos we carried or had taped to our bodies as evidence – over the objections of the Prosecutor.
When the jury entered the room at 9:40, the State officially rested its case and our defense was allowed to begin. Ruth Cole, a 26-year old member of the Rye House Catholic Worker Community in Minneapolis was the first on the stand even though this was her first trial! She talked about her education in the field of Early Childhood Education, teaching in elementary school and her special interest in helping children suffering from childhood trauma. She described the Catholic Worker values and commitment to hospitality as well as advocacy. She said their goal was to “live your life in a way that creates social justice.” When asked by the Prosecutor [attempting to defeat any “necessity defense”] if she felt in imminent danger while at the airbase, Ruth was clear with conviction in her answer: “I represent more than myself, … my “body” was not in danger but I am connected to others who are.” I was so proud to hear a first-timer when pressed in court to have such an insightful answer.
Julie Brown, a Des Moines Catholic Worker, skated as close as she dared to the Judge’s “philosophical” line when she asked, “How can you mourn your own child who is now just in small pieces?” She told the jury she carried the photo of a child who had been killed in a drone strike “in case they [the military personnel] wouldn’t talk to me. I had to find another way to communicate my message.”
Elliott Adams described his military and post-military experience when questioned by our lawyer. After saying he “felt obligated to go to the base to prevent war crimes; it is my responsibility as a citizen,” he was prevented by the Judge from talking about his belief of “small laws” versus “big laws”. He told the jury he was open to more suggestions about ways he could petition his government, recognizing that this Judge wasn’t interested in performing that function in this trial.
Chet Guinn, a retired Methodist minister, had worked for the church for 44 years and continues to function in ecumenical and interfaith circles. When he attempted to read an excerpt of a statement from the World Council of Churches condemning military drones, he was prevented from doing so by the Prosecutor’s objection. Stating that his birthday was only 6 months different from Martin Luther King, he claimed, “I wanted to inject King’s values into our society today.” As soon as he tried to continue that he believed King would be protesting drones with us today, he was cut off and he wasn’t able to continue about his wealth of experience during Freedom Summer 60 years ago and his life-long work for peace and justice. It was an honor to have this man with us. He told us during our trial prep gathering, “I know I came late [to the demonstration] but I felt it was necessary to have the church present.”
Michele Naar Obed told of her degree in medical pathology as well as her commitment to nonviolence. She told of her decision to join Christian Peacemaker Teams and spending 3 years in Iraq during the recent war. However, she was cut off and not allowed to talk about her witnessing the use of drones and meeting with victims’ families when the Judge ruled in favor of the Prosecutor’s objections.
Eddie Bloomer, another military veteran and member of Vets for Peace told how he has been a member of the Des Moines Catholic Worker family for 21 years. “As a former member of the military, I love my country,” he stated while trying to explain his participation that cold St. Patrick’s Day morning last March.
The Judge called a recess at 10:40, leaving me as the final defense witness. When I got to the stand 15 minutes later, when asked by our lawyer what I carried with me that day, I showed the indictment, and described the blue scarf I wore that day, saying it had been given to me by friends in Afghanistan. I then held up the large photo of Abdulhai that I carried and told the jury he and his friends gave me a letter to carry back to the US to deliver to the President via Keith Ellison, my Congressman, three years ago this Spring. It called on our President (and all other combatants) to end the use of military means and use diplomacy instead. They have never heard back from either the Congressman or the President. I wanted to carry their message to the airbase that morning. I also talked about 4 presentations by a Pakistani Federal Police Officer, Mubarak Zeb, who described how drones make his law enforcement job much more difficult in his home country, especially in the tribal areas.
The lawyers and Judge discussed jury instructions while five of the defendants went to lunch with some local supporters. After lunch, despite our objections, the Judge allowed the State to present a rebuttal witness – a Lt. Colonel who is the Base Civil Engineer to officially establish the base property line. Although none of us testified in any official capacity as to where the property line was, thus no “rebuttal” was warranted, The Judge let him say the property line was 70’-80’ from the fence (not the more than 50 yards testified to the day before by the Major) but he had to admit on cross examination that all of the “Federal Property” keep out signs were posted on the fence and gate, a line we did not cross.
The closing statements were next and jurors were forbidden from taking any notes during them “since they aren’t evidence.” The Prosecutor said “This isn’t the ‘Crime of the Century’ but it is a crime. It is not less of a crime if no one is hurt. … Liberty can only be maintained when laws are enforced. …Motives are immaterial to the fact that they [broke the law].” Michele quoted from the Bible where she said she was instructed that if she had a disagreement with a brother or sister to go to them directly, then go with another, before you go to court. That was what she was trying to do in speaking directly to the National Guard. “Which is more important,” she asked, “property or life? We came to humanize, to bring life, to bring hope. We walked down that drive to change hearts and minds of the people behind that fence. We tried to uphold the Spirit of the law.”
Elliott told the jury that he remains haunted from his experience in Vietnam because he followed only the “small laws.” Glenn Downey, one of our pro-bono lawyers concluded by again talking about lines and boundaries. Finally, in rebuttal, another Prosecutor said they [the State] must prove 3 elements of trespass – “everything else is smoke and mirrors. … The only thing that matters is that they were on that property. We need to take all laws seriously. They chose to get arrested.” No word, apparently that, for him or the State, “all laws” might include the “bigger laws,” International Law, which Elliott and others of us wish the court (and jury) would address.
30 minutes later we had our answer and off we went to jail for reasons of conscience and compassion.
This is part two of a two-part series. Read ‘Drone protest trial in Des Moines – Day 1.’