Punished for Exercising Our Constitutional Rights? by Steve Clemens May 16, 2012


The contrast between the two Judges couldn’t have been starker. Judge Peter Cahill and Judge Ronald Abrams both serve on the Hennepin County’s Fourth District Bench. Both Judges were assigned criminal trespass cases for nonviolent protest at the entrance to the corporate headquarters of Minnesota’s largest war profiteer, Alliant Techsystems (ATK). The same defense arguments were made in both courtrooms, the former in 2010, the latter this week. The same Eden Prairie Prosecutor, different Judges. The results were significantly different: Judge Cahill thanked the defendants for interesting and enlightening testimony and fined us $1 or one hour of community service – hopefully at a local children’s hospital, he added, noting in our testimony about our concern over civilian causalities of war.

While Judge Abrams treated us courteously and thanked both the defense and prosecution for our behavior in court, the sentencing differed widely. 10 days in jail; two days in jail; 68 hours of community service; 32 hours of community service. When is the last time you hear a Judge order 90 days in jail for an 89 year-old nonviolent defendant who is a nun in declining health? Yes, he stayed 87 of those days for a year in mandating the 32 hours of community service but his sentence was the maximum allowed under the trespass law of Minnesota.
To further add to the disparity, the 12 nonviolent defendants were repeatedly offered a plea bargain deal if we chose to forgo our right to a jury trial and enter a no contest plea to the charges: any amount of self-reporting community service to any local non-profit organization would be the prosecutor’s recommendation to the court. All we had to do is take the guilty plea.
“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” is an adage I’ve heard (and repeated) many times. In fact, if we choose to engage in civil resistance for the sake of peace and justice, we would do well to always be prepared to face the legal consequences of our actions.
The Constitution gives us the right to a jury trial of our “peers” but the way the system operates when one looks closely from behind the defendants table in the courtroom is a process which often removes citizens with well-formed, educated opinions when the jury pool is whittled down to who will actually hear the case. Strict rules of evidence and what testimony will be allowed in front of a jury controls the process – treating as “hearsay” and “irrelevant” the years of study and investigation done by principled protestors. The jury is instructed to follow the precise letter of the law, the spirit of which be damned.
One can go “pro se”, act as one’s own attorney but you aren’t invited back to the inner sanctum of the courtroom where the prosecutor can huddle with the judge, planning out sentencing strategy. When one co-defendant tried to go through the back door to request that the microphones be turned off during a break in the proceedings so the defendants could discuss issues without them being recorded or overheard, he was briskly told he could not be “back there” because of the security risk – even though he had gone through the same security checkpoint on the second floor as any prosecutor would.
We are told by the Prosecutor that “more than 95%” of all his cases are “settled out of court” with a type of plea bargain. The number of cases overwhelms the Court as the budgets for the judicial branch continue to face cuts to both staff and finances. The entire system would collapse if only a few more defendants would request their right to a jury trial. Judge Cahill asked his defendants if they were will to accept an official “hearing” rather than a jury trial and I suspect his sentence reflected his appreciation for our willingness to avoid the more confrontational style of a jury trial.
But defendants shouldn’t have to make such choices when a trial by jury is a constitutional right. I went in to the Courtroom this week a skeptic about the type of “justice” I’d receive. I remain skeptical. The Judge was given input from the Prosecutor about my past convictions (although Patrick Leach, the Prosecutor, probably didn’t do a thorough search of all the defendants) but I’m certain he did not mention that 3 times Hennepin County juries have acquitted me of the same charge for the same type of protest. In jury trials for this offense, I’m still 3 wins (not guilty) with now two losses; a batting average of .600, not bad for a non-lawyer.
I’m glad to do the 10 days in jail if it exposes our “judicial system” for what it is: straining at gnats while swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:24) when it continues to fail to challenge illegal wars, indiscriminate weapons, and predatory bankers but instead fills our jails and prisons with those who are predominately on the margins of our society. Our jails are filled with people who are mentally ill and/or physically addicted but instead of treatment, we specialize in punishment. A friend of mine in Georgia who recently was jailed because of his nonviolent support of immigrants told me he experienced his jail time as a sacrament. His friend told him, “Being imprisoned for the Gospel is sacramental.” Lets hope I can keep that in mind when it is time to “do my time”!

Going To Jail for Peacemaking


Going To Jail For Peacemaking by Steve Clemens. May 15, 2012
I could tell by the way the jurors entering the courtroom today refused to meet our eyes or even look at us that the verdict would go against the 11 peacemakers on trial in Hennepin County’s 4th District Court. The jury trial was the result of a nonviolent witness at the entrance of Alliant Techsystems’ corporate headquarters in Eden Praire, MN just two days before ATK would move its main office to Arlington, VA on October 1, 2011 to be close to the Pentagon, its largest customer. 
There were 12 defendants the day we were arrested on trespass charges when we refused to leave unless we could meet with the CEO or other corporate officers to deliver a Civil Arrest Warrant as well as a notebook entitled “Employee Liabilities of Weapons Manufacturers Under International Law”. Even though the Eden Prairie Police Officers agreed to place the documents we carried into our case files, Judge Ronald Abrams agreed with Prosecutor Patrick Leach’s objection to the documents being allowed to be entered as evidence in our trial. So the jurors never had the excerpts of the international laws and treaties in front of them when they deliberated and instead seemed to agree with the prosecutor’s closing statement claiming we cited no actual laws in our defense after he and the Judge had prevented including them as evidence.
Despite the disappointing verdict, it was a great pleasure to hear the moving, clear testimony of my fellow defendants. I was proud to sit beside Sister Marguerite Corcoran at the defense table and watch her slowly walk up to the witness chair aided by her cane due to her Parkinson’s. She knew, given some of her health challenges, that at age 82 this might be one of her last times she might be able to participate in civil disobedience for a cause she cares deeply about. She wasn’t alone in that sentiment: her housemates, Sister Rita McDonald, age 89, and Sister Kate McDonald, age 83, didn’t choose to sit on the sidelines that September morning and so were great compatriots while testifying on their own behalf.
A third of the four “notorious” McDonald Sisters, Brigid, was feisty with her comments in the courtroom, expressing her outrage that ATK can profit by killing people yet we were the ones hauled into court rather than “the real criminals”. Jeanne Hynes carried a bandaged doll to the ATK protest and brought it again to hold while testifying about how indiscriminate weapons like the ones ATK sells continue to victimize real children – and keep killing and deforming long after a war has ended. Dr. David Harris, a retired surgeon and military veteran told his reasons for joining the arrest witness. Retired postal worker and fellow veteran, John Schmid tried to talk about some of the medical affects he has learned about from depleted uranium but Prosecutor Leach interrupted his testimony as irrelevant. Roger Cuthbertson attempted to explain the need for a citizen’s arrest procedure but was also stifled by objections which were sustained by the Judge.
Tom Bottolene, the creator of Alliant Action’s webpage and fount of information about Minnesota’s largest war profiteer testified about ATK’s history of making indiscriminate weapons, describing three of them in greater detail: cluster bombs, the XM-25 combat weapons designed to fire around corners or over walls, and depleted uranium. He told of our October 2010 “secret meeting” with ATK’s CEO, Mark DeYoung, and how he told us his company was no longer making depleted uranium munitions, indicating that he did not feel compelled to continue some of the “bad” decisions of his predecessors. Bottolene went on to describe his attendance at the AKT Shareholders meeting in August 2011 where CEO DeYoung admitted that the new contract for tank shells included depleted uranium. Therefore, Bottolene continued, it was incumbent that we remind the CEO of the illegality of this indiscriminate weapon by trying to once again deliver to him copies of relevant treaties and international law contained in the notebook.
Bill Barnett, also a stockholder, told how he had been arrested while trying to attend a shareholders meeting in past years and once again asked the Judge to reconsider entering our notebook into evidence since we carried it with us at the time of arrest and certainly documented our intent that day – to no avail. My own testimony may have been the longest because I attempted to read into the court record excerpts of Treaties the U.S. has signed, including the Hague and Geneva Conventions which clearly outlaw indiscriminate weapons. I tried to describe provisions from the Nuremberg Tribunals which compel all people to resist complicity with War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity. Although I managed to read a few of these excerpts despite the prosecutor’s objections, copies of these were prohibited from being included as evidence even though the US Constitution declares such treaties as “the supreme law of the land and judges in every state shall be bound thereby”. It appears that in Hennepin County, “supreme” somehow needs to take a backseat to private property trespass laws!
The jury took barely one hour to convict all of us when they returned to deliberate the next morning after receiving the jury instructions from the judge. After dismissing them, the Judge asked if we were ready to proceed to sentencing. The defendants were. Having already appeared four times in the courtroom at Ridgedale for arraignment and pre-trial appearances, we had little desire to make another separate trip to the fa├žade of “justice”. However, the Prosecutor asked if he could have some time to consult with the defendants before making his recommendations to the Court.
“What do you want to do, Mr. Clemens?” Leach asked me. I responded that I felt my actions were a “community service” already and if the court felt it needed to punish me, I’d prefer to go to jail. “For how long?” was his response. I refused to set the parameters of my own punishment declaring that he should “let the punishment fit the crime.”
Why would I “choose” jail over a sentence of community service and a fine?
Doing the time for the “crime” certainly is closer to Gandhi’s own practice of asking his judges for the maximum penalty. He understood the value of taking on suffering as a moral force for change and how it exposed the violence and cruelty of the state. For me, having the Judge order me to jail helps expose the preposterous idea that peaceful, nonviolent protest should be punished when it challenges the “rights” of corporate war profiteers. [The Prosecutor went out of his way to say that he might not like what ATK produces and did not represent the company in his role as prosecutor. Other prosecutors I’ve had in the past went further –admitting they despised what ATK did – but all followed their prescribed role in protecting a trespass law over human life in “enemy” lands.]
Choosing jail is my offering to my new (and future) friends in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a statement to them that I take seriously my desire to stand in solidarity with them in denouncing the scourge of depleted uranium and depleted consciences. Their knowledge that there are Americans willing to sit in jail (even if only for 10 days) out of concern for their well-being can hopefully help the healing needed between citizens of the US empire and citizens of its new vassal states in the Middle East and southwest Asia. I go to jail in good conscience to stand in solidarity with my friends Sami, Hakim, Abdulai, Sammera, Faiz, Zuhair, President Akeel, Zahra and Sharbanoo, Dr. Ali, Hiba, Dr. Askouri, and many others. I’ll have time in jail to think about and pray for them. I’ll have time to think about and pray for my own nation’s leaders and corporate chieftains.
Dr. David Harris, a stalwart friend (although all the other defendants have become good friends over our years of vigil and protest together), said he wanted to join me in going to jail when Mr. Leach asked him what he felt was an appropriate sentence for his conviction. Although he was sentenced to only two days in jail, the Prosecutor deciding (without a lot of first-hand evidence) that he had fewer criminal convictions, I am grateful for his act of conscience and solidarity.
While other defendants have been sentenced to between 32 and 68 hours of community service, our 12th defendant, Charlie Bloss, had his sentence suspended because he remains in the hospital battling the effects of cancer. He had been excused from attending the trial but the court honored his desire to be included with us, accepting whatever verdict came down on the others.
So, after our conversation with the Prosecutor, one by one we were called before the bench for our sentencing. It was a little startling to hear “I sentence you to 90 days in the Hennepin County Adult Corrections Facility (Workhouse). Execution of 81 days is stayed for one year. You are fined $50. You will serve 10 days with the 10th day served in lieu of paying your fine and surcharge and assessments. You will report to the Workhouse on June 26th by 11AM. You are not to go on the property of 7480 Flying Cloud Drive in Eden Prairie for a year. No trespass (within the State of Minnesota) during that year. I wish you well in the future.”
David was sentenced before me and the Judge prefaced his sentence saying, “I work very hard to keep people out of jail. I am sending you to jail (at your request) with a heavy heart.” I believe he meant it. Our Judge is trapped in the same system which seems bent on victimizing everyone in the process. Such is life in the declining empire.