A New Strategy to Be Heard?

A Hearing in Lieu of a Trial by Steve Clemens. April 15, 2010

Four members of the weekly AlliantACTION circle that vigils every week by the entrance to Alliant Techsystems (ATK), Minnesota’s largest weapons manufacturer and war profiteer, were scheduled to have a jury trial today in Hennepin County Court. The four of us, Sister Kate McDonald, Roger Cuthbertson, Geri Eikaas, and myself were charged with trespass on October 2, 2009. It was the 140th anniversary of Gandhi’s birthday and in the spirit of this icon of nonviolence, the four of us attempted to carry documents into ATK’s corporate headquarters in Eden Prairie and ask to meet with their CEO or other corporate official.

The documents we carried were entitled “Employee Liabilities of Weapons Manufacturers Under International Law” and included a letter signed by the four of us, excerpts from International Treaties about indiscriminate weapons, and articles from the media about the use and effects of cluster bombs and depleted uranium munitions. We chose to accept arrest rather than leave without at least an appointment with an ATK official.

We intended to plead our case to a jury this morning, basing our defense on International Treaties signed by our government under the “Claim of Right” provision in Minnesota’s trespass statute. However, when we were assigned Judge Peter Cahill as our trial judge, he asked us if there was any way we could “settle the case” short of a jury trial. The prosecutor from Eden Prairie had already offered a deal of community service with little to no fine and the possibility of waiving court costs but each of us wanted our day in court.

When Judge Cahill asked me why I desired a jury trial instead of settling the case with little or no consequences, I told him that we wanted a public forum to educated the public on the illegal weapons made and sold by Alliant Techsystems. I informed the judge that the International Committee of the Red Cross, the organization charged by the United Nations with promulgating International Humanitarian Law (also referred to as the Laws of War), has said that “using the national courts”, and “pressure from the media and public opinion help insure implementation of IHL”.

The judge listened carefully and paused to consider what I had said. He noted that the four of us planned to go to trial without lawyers representing us and said he would abide by strict court procedures in what testimony or evidence he would allow before the jury. However, he asked if we would be willing to consider an alternative: he would make his courtroom available for half a day for a “hearing –on the record, with a court reporter” for us to present our case to him in a freer format than before a jury. We could call witnesses if we wished. He would allow freer reign in what evidence, including photos that we might wish to present. In exchange, he would issue a “continuance toward dismissal” of our case providing none of the four of us were arrested for trespass at ATK in the next six months. He would assess court costs to us between zero and $100 after he heard our testimony and evidence. We were free to invite the public and especially the media if we wanted to follow the Red Cross mandate to “sensitize public option”.

We requested to possibility of videotaping the testimony but were denied that request because Hennepin County is in the midst of internal discussions about considering adjustments to its present policy prohibiting it, noting that some might feel that this case would appear “too political” to some who already opposed any changes. The judge suggested we could invite local media to video any testimony we wished to give outside of the courtroom if we wished. The real question for us is this: does the local media even care? In the past, even with two consecutive “not guilty” verdicts from Hennepin County juries in December 2004, local media showed no interest in the story. “We’ve already covered those protests in the past” was a typical reply from the local major newspapers and the local TV stations weren’t interested without compelling video footage.

The four of us chose to accept the judge’s proposal as an experiment, a new option we haven’t had before. The judge reminded us that in accepting it, we were only waiving our right to a speedy trial. If, after the hearing, we felt dissatisfied, we could return to ATK and “cross the line” and be arrested again for trespass within the six month window, causing us to return to his courtroom for a jury trial. (Not that our right to a speedy trial had done us much good – it has been more than six months since the arrest for this day in court.)

Will the media be interested? Or will the defendants be merely “preaching to the choir” plus Judge Cahill? How do we best capture the attention of our fellow Minnesotans about the indiscriminate weapons marketed around the world by ATK? How do we give voice to the voiceless victims of what the United Nations has labeled “the weapons of mass indiscriminate destruction”? The Hearing is scheduled for Friday, April 23, 9-noon, in Courtroom 753 of the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis. Come hear a grandmother who just became active in the anti-indiscriminate weapon movement in the past two years tell why she was arrested for the first time. Hear one of the MacDonald sisters, radical nuns who have sung and protested for decades. Listen to a Peace Corp alumnus who taught geography for over 30 years and now flies colorful kites with messages about war, healthcare, and weapons. Come and lend your voice to public opinion calling for “peace conversion with no loss of jobs.”

1 comment:

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