Twenty-Four Anti-Torture Activists Acquitted

Memorial for slain torture victims, Capitol Rotunda. Beth Brockman photo

On Monday, June 14, twenty-four activists with Witness Against Torture were acquitted in Washington, D.C. Superior Court of charges of “unlawful entry with disorderly conduct.” The charges stemmed from demonstrations at the US Capitol on January 21,2010 – the date by which President Obama had promised the closure of the Guantanamo detention camp.

Defendant Joy First wrote about the trial:

The trial was scheduled to start at 9:30 am. Once we were seated in the courtroom, there were some preliminary matters to deal with before the trial started. Most notably, Bill Quigley argued a motion we had entered for an acquittal, but if we were not acquitted he argued that we would be allowed to use international law and the necessity defense.

I hadn’t been feeling too anxious up till then, but when we sat down in the courtroom and the judge began dealing with some of the preliminary matters, I could feel the anxiety rising in my stomach and moving up to my chest. A couple of defendants had not shown up by the 9:30 start time and we had to deal with that. Judge Canan had to ask the defendants a series of questions to make sure we understood that by going pro se we were giving up our right to an attorney.

Judge Canan then asked the prosecutors if they had developed their theory of the case and if they understood what it meant to be charging us with breach of the peace, a part of the unlawful assembly statute. The two young women, who turned out to be very inexperienced and naïve, said they were ready to proceed to trial. They said that they were not required to prove that we DID cause a breach of the peace, but that we COULD HAVE caused a breach of the peace. They said that we were loud and boisterous, a key element they pulled from the statute, and that we were blocking others from moving freely.

Mark Goldstone stood up and told Judge Canan that he believed that under the unlawful assembly charge, the government is required to prove that we DID cause a breach of the peace.

My anxiety melted away when Bill began his arguments on the motion for acquittal and if not acquittal, that we be allowed to use the international law and the necessity defense during the trial. I was looking forward to hearing Bill as he is a national figure and very well known as the Legal Director for the Center for Constitutional Rights. His arguments were so eloquent and moving. He laid the whole thing out brilliantly and really spoke to the essence of what we were doing and why. When he was done, it seemed like we could just go home because he had said it all.

In his conclusion, Bill said that if we act as if there is the possibility for change, change will come. He said that we were acting for that possibility for change on January 21st. Finally, he said that it is a sad fact that in our culture today, we have the tendency to adjust to injustice. The outrageous and criminal actions that are perpetrated by our government continue. We, as citizens, become more complacent every day in the face of this malfeasance. We must show our outrage and demand change so that we are not dragged down into the depths of despair.

The judge was very interested in what Bill had to say and asked a lot of questions of Bill throughout his presentation. The judge seemed to lack a real understanding of the issues and was willing and anxious to learn from the expert standing before him.

Art gave a stirring follow-up to Bill’s arguments. He said that any treaty is the supreme law of the land according to the constitution. What is at stake is people’s lives. People have died. He reminded the judge that we were acting on behalf of these prisoners who have not had their day in court after being held for over eight years. We have the legal as well as the moral right to present evidence on international law.

Others also spoke to this motion, but after listening to everyone, and after taking a short break to consider the arguments, Judge Canan denied the motion. It was a blow to hear his decision, but not unexpected.

The trial began and after the opening statement by the prosecution, the government attorney’s called several police officers as witnesses to provide evidence for their case. The officers recounted what happened on January 21, but it was clear by the end of their testimony that they could not prove we were loud and boisterous, a key element needed for us to be found guilty. Malachy and Claire were the pro se defendants who did most of the cross examination of the prosecution witnesses and they did an excellent job. A couple of the officers specifically stated that we were not loud and boisterous.

When the prosecution rested their case, Beth and Paki made a motion for judgment of acquittal They said that the government did not prove their case and so we should be acquitted at this point. We’ve never been granted a motion for judgment of acquittal at this point in the trial. We have always had to present our case, and I didn’t expect anything different this time.

But this time Judge Canan began to quiz the prosecutors. He said that he had asked them what their theory was at the beginning of the trial and what it meant to charge us with breach of the peace. He said that now it is an issue because the prosecution did not prove that we had breached the peace. The judge said that according to case law, in a breach of the peace individuals use words that could incite violence.

Judge Canan reminded the prosecutors that in the original charging statement we were charged with unlawful assembly, but the government only used part of the unlawful assembly statute in the charging statement. This was the section on breach of the peace and being loud and boisterous.

After the judge and the prosecutors argued back and forth several times the government said they wanted to use the whole statute at this point. This was absolutely ludicrous that they would ask for a change in the charging statement AFTER they had rested their case.

After giving the prosecution several chances to try to state how they could save their case, Judge Canan said that he would give them one more chance. After one more attempt by the prosecutor, the judge said that we were not properly charged and he would grant the motion for judgment of acquittal.