Jury Deliberates Protesters’ Fate
An eight-member jury began deliberations this afternoon in the criminal trespassing case of four Iraq War protesters who staged a sit-in at U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot’s office in September. Deliberations began after the five lawyers in the case — one representing the city of Cincinnati as plaintiff and the others representing one of the defendants individually — presented their closing arguments.
The jury didn’t reach a verdict before the end of the day and will resume deliberations Tuesday morning.
Although the defendants’ lawyers argued that a legal rationale existed for the protesters to remain in Chabot’s downtown office after they were asked to leave, the jury instructions approved by the judge after haggling with the lawyers over wording were narrowly written and seems to give the advantage to the plaintiff.
The protesters’ lawyers mounted a “necessity defense,” which states that defendants met the legal standard to violate the law to prevent imminent harm, in this case the loss of more lives in the Iraq War. Municipal Court Judge David Stockdale’s jury instructions, however, stated that necessity exists only when the unlawful act is done to prevent harm arising from a physical or natural force, such as a storm or contagious disease, but not when the harm arises from “human conduct, such as governmental policy.”
In his closing argument, lawyer William Gallagher, who represents protester Gregory Flannery, said the term doesn’t capture the magnitude of the defendants’ actions. “This was much more than a government policy they were attempting to affect … there are people dying,” Gallagher said.
Lawyer Jennifer Kinsley, who represents protestor Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen, said the group had made multiple attempts to contact Chabot for weeks and persuade him to support a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq but were repeatedly rebuffed. “This was the last straw,” Kinsley said. “This was the point where you were ignored and ignored and ignored and ignored, and you really want to make your voice heard.”
It’s unclear whether a criminal violation even occurred, argued lawyer Scott Nazzarine, who represents protester Barbara Wolf. Because Congress was in session well into the evening on the day of the protest and because Chabot’s local office is paid for with taxpayer funds and no business hours were listed, it should be considered still open for business when the protesters were cited by police.
City Prosecutor Jay Littner countered that prejudice or sympathy shouldn’t be a factor in the jury’s deliberations. Referring to the defendants, Littner said they were “all very polite, articulate and well-meaning. But I think we can all agree that even well-meaning people can overdo it sometimes in their zealousness.”
A not guilty verdict would set a dangerous precedent, Littner added. “There are plenty of special interest groups out there with causes near and dear to their heart. Where do we draw the line?” he asked.
Besides Jegen, Wolf and Flannery, who also is CityBeat’s news editor, the other defendant is Ellen Dienger. A guilty verdict can only be reached with a unanimous jury decision. If convicted, each defendant faces up to 30 days in jail and a $250 fine.
A fifth defendant, the Rev. John Rich, pleaded no contest before the trial began. He was sentenced to one day in jail, with credit for the day he served following his arrest; 20 hours of community service; and a fine and court costs totaling $85.
— Kevin Osborne