By RONNIE DUGGER
Two members of the Democracy Brigades, an Alliance for Democracy group that is protesting campaign finance corruption, were convicted of illegally demonstrating in the Capitol Rotunda by a jury in a four-day trial that had been expected to last half as long. The defendants, Steven Shafarman of Washington, D.C., and Patricia Hammann of Cashtown, Pa., announced they will appeal to the District Circuit Court and, if necessary, to the US Supreme Court.
The District of Columbia prosecutors had dropped charges against a third member of the Brigade, Ronnie Dugger of New York and Massachusetts, who then switched to being a witness for the defense in the case.
The three had pled not guilty to charges filed against the nine members of the Henry David Thoreau Democracy Brigade last Oct. 26th after they had unfurled a banner against "Crimes Against Democracy" in the Capitol Rotunda and commenced to take turns reading aloud a "Citizens' Address to Congress" which reviewed various public-interest disasters in the Capitol and calling for full public funding for public elections.
The maximum penalty for doing this was six months and a $500 fine. Six of the nine pled guilty in November and, after delivering eloquent courtroom statements, were sentenced to five hours "time served" while they were being booked and to a $50 contribution each to the D.C. victims-of-crime fund.
The first Brigade case to go to trial pitted the defense lawyer, Mark Goldstone of Bethesda, the lead attorney in the National Lawyers' Guild nationwide program for the defense of demonstrators, against two government lawyers, Tony Alexis and Tricia Francis. The first of three judges on the case, Evelyn Queen, stated, about the cause of campaign finance reform, "I know in the survival of this country may in fact be at stake." But the system played "judicial roulette" with the case as trial schedules and a misunderstanding moved it past a second judge to a third, Judge Mildred Edwards.
The law in question, which prohibits "parading, demonstrating, or picketing" in a Capitol building, had been declared unconstitutional in the controlling case unless the demonstrators are held to cause more disruption than ordinary tourists do. In the November hearing, Judge Truman Morrison held that there had been no showing of disruption and that in fact the demonstrators showed every sign of just wishing to petition their government.
And in the trial March 13-16 Judge Edwards very nearly threw the case out on grounds that merely unfurling a banner and speaking loudly could not violate the tourist standard. She told the government lawyers they had to have more than that to supercede the defendants' First Amendment rights.
But then, bound by the law to sharply favor the government at that juncture, she let the case go to the jury, which deliberated three and a half hours to reach its verdict. Applying the tourist standard, the jury agreed with the prosecution's position that by unfurling a large banner and speaking loudly (especially Shafarman, who oratorically raised his voice after he had been arrested and his text had fallen to the floor), they had demonstrated unlawfully under "the tourist standard."
Evidently surprised, Judge Edwards declined to sentence Hammann and Shafarman even to their five hours time already served, saying that they deserved no incarceration at all, and cut the government's requested total $100 fine for each of them to $75.
One of the government's witnesses from the Capitol police, Officer Kelly Oldridge, testified that not even buttons, pins, or signs expressing ideas are permitted into the Rotunda. She said she knew the banner wasn't allowed because it expressed ideas. The officers characterized the Rotunda as "museum-like," where tourists are speak in hushed tones with reverence for the paintings and busts there.
As Francis stated the crime, Shafarman and Hammann "were demonstrating in the Rotunda of the US Capitol building." "All right," responded Judge Edwards briskly (referring to Doris Haddock), "people walk across the country [on this issue], and others go to the house of the legislature." But the jury had not yet been chosen.
Goldstone goaded the court into requiring the prosecution to state exactly what each of the three defendants had done. After lawyers for both sides, at the judge's behest, together viewed two videotapes of the demonstration over a lunch hour, according to Goldstone, Alexis said, "We're dropping the case against Dugger." When asked why, he said, "Because he didn't do anything." The police had formed a cordon around the nine demonstrators and arrested them all, but two of them, including Dugger, had not taken their turns reading before they were arrested. Asked after the trial why the charge against Dugger had been dropped, however, Alexis replied: "We couldn't find the officer who saw what [he] did."
With reporting assistance from Ale Traugott. For information on the Democracy Brigades, contact the Alliance for Democracy, phone 781-894-1179 or see www.afd-online.org.