Judge finds activists who blocked the entrance to NY drone base NOT GUILTY


In a historic decision, five Catholic Worker activists were acquitted October 24 of disorderly conduct charges for blocking the main entrance to Hancock Air Base, home of the 174th Attack Wing of the Air National Guard, Syracuse, New York. Hancock is a Reaper drone hub whose technicians pilot weaponized drones over Afghanistan.

The five went “pro se,” defending themselves in the De Witt town court of Judge Robert Jokl.

In his closing statement Fr. Bill Picard said, “We pray for you, Judge Jokl, to have the courage to do the right and courageous thing.”

After the verdict was announced, the D.A. objected, and the judge said to him that he hadn’t found “mens rea,” Latin for “guilty mind.”  The five defendants, with powerful eloquence, convinced the judge that their intent was to uphold, not break, the law.  This acquittal marks a major breakthrough by those who have sought to strengthen international law, and stop U.S. war crimes, including extra-judicial murder by the illegal drones.

Defendant Carmen Trotta said, “We are happy to be part of a groundswell of opposition to the drones. What a joy to win such a verdict on what is officially United Nations day.  We told the judge that we were not alienated citizens, but rather engaged citizens! Ultimately it seems he was moved by our consciences.” Carmen noted the recent groundswell included Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and the head of the Jesuits Order, Alfanso Nicolas, UN Special Rapporteur Mr. Emmerson, and the Nobel Peace Nominee, the young Pakastani girl shot for promoting education for women and girls, in Pakistan, all of whom have condemned drone U.S. drone strikes.

Defendant Linda LeTendre stated, “My hope is that dissent is once again welcome in the US and we turn away from killing to caring as a country.”

Ellen Grady stated, “We pray and will continue to act that the children of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and all countries will some day soon be without the terror of drones or any wars!”

The five activists are:

~ Fr. Bill Frankel-Streit of Virginia;

~ Linda Le Tendre of Saratoga Springs, NY;

~ Ellen Grady of Ithaca, NY;

~ Carmen Trotta of New York, NY;

~ Fr. Bill Pickard of Scranton, PA.

Ash Wednesday Statement – Feb. 13, 2013

We come to Hancock Airfield, home of the National Reaper Drone Maintainence and Training Center, this Ash Wednesday, to remember the victims of our drone strikes and to ask God’s forgiveness for the killing of other human beings, most especially children.

The killer drone strikes and the US’s killer drone policies have taken the lives of thousands in a number of countries, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq and Somalia. These strikes are illegal and immoral. Under international agreements, which the US has signed, the killing of civilians, extra-judicial murders, violations of national sovereignty, and violations of due process are ALL illegal acts.

We come to Hancock Airfield this Ash Wednesday to repent for the actions of our government and to ask God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of the people we daily terrorize with these drones.

We remind ourselves that our lives are brief and mysterious, and that “from dust we were created and to dust we shall return!” The significance of our brief animation is the degree to which we love one another.

Lent is a time to repent–literally, to change our minds. It is a time to REMIND ourselves of Jesus’ command to love our neighbors and our enemies. It is a time to REMIND ourselves of Jesus’ radical, non-violent message love.

Stop the Killing.  Ground the Drones.  STOP the Wars.


From Waging Nonviolence

Ground the Drones members found not guilty

Protesters outside Hancock Airfield in Syracuse, NY (Pax Christi USA / Fr. Bill Pickard)

Protesters outside Hancock Airfield in Syracuse, N.Y. (Pax Christi USA / Fr. Bill Pickard)

A crowd of over 50 people in New York’s DeWitt Town Court broke out into cheers at 10 p.m. yesterday when Judge Robert Jokl issued a not guilty verdict for five members of the Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars. The five pro se defendants — including Ellen Grady, Bill Streit, Carmen Trotta, Bill Pickard and Linda Latendre — were on trial for disorderly conduct, stemming from a symbolic blockade of the National Guard 174th Attack Wing at Hancock Airfield in Syracuse, N.Y., earlier this year.

The defendants’ action took place on February 13, 2013 — Ash Wednesday — when together they stood in the driveway to the air base holding signs that described drone activities and the murdering of children around the globe. During the action, Latendre read a statement that said, “We come to Hancock Airfield this Ash Wednesday to repent for the actions of our government and to ask God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of the people we daily terrorize with these drones.”

The 174th Attack Wing at Hancock Airfield is responsible for the maintenance and operation of MQ-9 Reaper drones. These unmanned combat flying machines have recently come under the international spotlight for illegal killings of U.S. citizens, as well as innocent civilians overseas in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The defendants were clear in their position, stating, “Due process is a bedrock of our country. When we use drones we become the judge, the jury and the executioner all at once.”

During the first half of the trial, the prosecution brought five military and civilian officers to the stand whose testimony focused on the technical aspects of the arrests, including where the protesters were standing and whether or not they were blocking access to the base. The defense, on the other hand, highlighted international law surrounding extra-military operations, as well as their own spiritual and philosophical callings to resist drone operations with nonviolent direct action.

All five of the defendants self-identified as people of Christian and Catholic faiths, guided by Christ’s radical message of living with compassion and love for all. Rev. Bill Streit is a member of the Catholic Worker for over 25 years. In his personal statement, Streit said that the spirit of the Catholic Worker and their action is “living out the works of mercy, giving help to the needy, and in essence standing with the poor and protecting the poor.”

For Linda Latendre, another of the defendants, she explained that during her 30 years as a social worker, she watched the visible toll that extreme military spending has had on some of the most vulnerable people in America.

“I have watched the fabric and safety net for the people who cannot speak and care for themselves crumble under the debt of the military industrial complex,” she said.

In closing, the defendants addressed Judge Jokl directly, asking him to “join the arc of justice” and find them not-guilty of disorderly conduct. In order to reach a guilty verdict, the district attorney had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the five defendants had acted with reckless intent to cause significant public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm. This would have most likely resulted in a fine and jail time. The prosecution, however, failed to meet its burden of proof, and despite “wanting to find them guilty,” Judge Jokl ruled with the defense, and the crowd cheered.


Shocking verdict, small miracle

by Linda LeTendre, Waging Peace, a Daily Gazette community blog
October 28, 2013

I cannot begin to describe the shock of Judge Jokl’s “Not Guilty “ verdict. I sat at the defense table with my mouth hanging open while the courtroom erupted in cheers and applause.

I remember thinking, “I must look a fool with my chin hanging lower than my navel.” I was dumbfounded. Speechless.

First I want to express my deep appreciation and admiration to my fellow dissidents of faith:
— Fr. Bill Frankel-Streit of the Little Flower Catholic Worker in Virginia;
— Ellen Grady of the Catholic Worker in Ithaca;
— Carmen Trotta of the Joseph House Catholic Worker in New York, NY;
— Fr. Bill Pickard of Scranton, Pa. Fr. Bill is works in a prison ministry.

There were a couple of things that made his verdict incredible. First was that Jokl said that the verdict was going to be shocking because he wanted to find us guilty. I said to myself, “That’s rather a bold thing for a judge to say in open court. I thought the task of a judge, who was in this case also the jury, was not to go into the case with a desire to find a defendant “guilty” or “not guilty” but to decide the facts of the case and render a decision based on those facts.”

Subtle distinction of wording but a chasm of difference in meaning. Having been on a federal grand jury almost 14 years ago (now they wouldn’t let me near a federal court house, let alone on the jury) and having been part of jury selection for one of my trials, believe me, I understand the difference.

Jokl said that the prosecution did not prove the charge of “disorderly conduct.” Part of our defense was that we were not on public property (a prerequisite for the charge) but rather on private property. Hancock base commander Earl Evans got up on the stand and testified that the property line for the base goes to the middle of East Malloy Road in front of the base. I made that specific point in my testimony and in my closing argument: that we were standing in the driveway to the base and we were in fact on private property. In his verdict Jokl acknowledged this fact by saying if we had been charged with trespass the verdict would have been different and I’d be behind bars.

A little aside here, when Evans got up on the stand –- uniform and all, I thought to myself, “So that’s what he looks like, now I know who to stay away from.” Recall that he has an order of protection against me (and the other four defendants), even though we have never met, much less any of us having ever threatened him. My great regret of the trial is not questioning him about the Orders of Protection. This will be one of those life long regrets.

I had actually prayed about using the technical public versus private property defense. What is the point of getting arrested for a higher principle if you get off on a technicality? The Gandhian approach, which is what we try to follow, is that we admit what we did and claim a higher authority for why is it not illegal.

The important part is the trial itself and the public presentation in court of the justifications for the action — even though the chance of getting off based on these justifications may be virtually nil. I came to the conclusion that times are now very different from when Gandhi was doing his ministry. We now live is such a police state (witness the NSA spying on all of us and the US government declaring that any citizen who opposes drones to be a low level terrorist) it now means something to beat them at their own game. A hollow victory, to be sure, and a commentary on how dark the times really are. A second helping of McCarthy-ism for the country.

My sincere thanks also to local attorney Kathy Manley who was my attorney advisor for the trial. It was her insight to use this as a defense strategy.

The second part of the verdict was the small miracle, a contradiction in terms if there ever was one. The DA, not happy with the verdict as you can well imagine, challenged it. Jokl agreed to hear him with the caveat that he was not going to change his decision. DA McNamara cited article six under the law. The judge looked at him and said, “I did not find mens rea.”

“Mens rea,” Latin for “guilty mind.” This speaks to our intentions during our witness. The miracle is that Jokl found our intent to be pure. My four co-defendants and I convinced the judge that our intent was to uphold, not break, the law. Our intent was to stop crime, not to commit one.

This acquittal comes from a judge whose initial intent was to convict all of us and throw all of us in jail. I will leave it to my readers to chose the size of the miracle here.

Both of the defense points we used had been previously argued by other dissidents in DeWitt Town Court but without success. This acquittal marks a major breakthrough by those who have sought to strengthen international law, and stop U.S. war crimes, including extra-judicial murder by the illegal drones and perhaps prevent using them here at home to spy on, and potentially kill, American citizens on their own soil, and in their own homes.

Part of me is disappointed at not being sentenced to jail time. Part of me was looking forward to that time to reflect and pray. Out in the parking lot, as we were leaving the the court house, I said, “I have $300 for my jail ministry! What am I going to do with this money?”

Luckily, there is a local jail ministry and the funds that were so generously given to me will go to the people I would have given them to – just not by me personally.

I reflected a long time about going to jail and was prepared and very much at peace with that prospect. My insight was that the good news of the Gospel is either just what Christ said it was, a road map of how to walk more humanly with each other, or it’s a bag of bupkis. I will continue to put all of my spiritual eggs in the basket with Christ.