The Justice Department’s attempt to make a federal case out of an antiwar protest collapsed Monday, when a jury in US District Court in Binghamton, New York, acquitted four war resisters of felony conspiracy charges related to an act of civil disobedience that took place on March 17, 2003.
The defendants, all members of the Catholic Worker Movement, entered a military recruiting center in suburban Ithaca, New York, four days before the United States launched its “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq, and poured blood around the vestibule of the center.
While acquitted of the most serious charge of conspiracy, sisters Clare and Teresa Grady, Daniel Burns and Peter DeMott were found guilty of two misdemeanors: trespassing and damaging government property. The so-called St. Patrick’s Day Four now face fines and up to eighteen months in prison. Sentencing is set for January.
In addition, Burns, DeMott and Teresa Grady were found guilty of contempt for disobeying Judge Thomas J. McAvoy’s order not to discuss the legality of the Iraq War, for failing to identify who originally drew blood for the protest and for disclosing that they had been previously tried in state court for the offense. That trial ended in a hung jury.
The trial wasn’t about whether they poured their blood–the four defendants freely admitted they did–but whether their actions were legal.
All four protesters, who represented themselves at the weeklong trial, said in numerous press conferences and interviews that they believed their actions were legal under international law. They said they believed that the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq is in violation of the United Nations Charter, and, according to treaties the United States signed after World War II, they believe that citizens can be held responsible for the crimes of their government.
So with international law on their side, they took it upon themselves to try to prevent the war. At the very least, they hoped to warn potential recruits about the illegality of the impending conflict.
But the defendants were not allowed to use international law as a defense. Nor were they allowed “necessity of defense,” a federal and state provision sometimes invoked in civil disobedience cases that says a person is not in violation of the law when he or she commits what would normally be a crime in order to prevent a greater harm.
“The war in Iraq is irrelevant to this case,” Judge McAvoy repeatedly told the court.
Nevertheless, the defendants found ways to cite international law during testimony. While DeMott questioned his co-defendant Burns on whether his actions were legal, Burns turned to the jury and replied, “Yes, they were legal. And that’s written down somewhere. I can’t tell you where because I’m not allowed, but it’s the supreme law of the land.”
The Grady sisters also pushed the envelope, speaking often and openly of the human costs of war, the illegality of the Iraq invasion, Iraqi civilian casualties and how the United States places its own servicemen and -women at risk of injury or death. On the witness stand, Clare Grady began to speak of her experiences on a visit to Iraq, where she met a photojournalist who gave her pictures of a mother pulling her dead children from the rubble of their own home. The prosecution objected and the judge sustained it, stating that the court didn’t need to hear any details about Iraq. “You mean,” Clare replied, “That I can’t talk about the sanctions in Iraq that killed over 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 and destroyed their infrastructure even before we dropped more bombs on them in 2003?”
The government failed to prove that the four conspired to use force, intimidation or threat to impede an officer of the United States, even though Assistant US Attorney Miroslav Lovric, who prosecuted the case, attempted to paint them as members of a radical Christian cult, throwing blood around indiscriminately.
In his closing arguments, Lovric compared the protesters to Timothy McVeigh, the Ku Klux Klan and abortion clinic bombers. “Righteous extremists like them would bring our country to anarchy,” he told the jury, claiming he wouldn’t dignify their own comparisons to former dissenters such as Susan B. Anthony–who broke the law by voting–and civil rights activists, who broke the law by sitting at all-white lunch counters.
Teresa Grady, speaking after the trial, said she believes the jury members made a wise choice with what they had, but feels that a full acquittal on all charges could have been possible had they been allowed to testify on international law. “It’s unfortunate,” she adds, “that the jury was not allowed the whole truth.”
The felony charge, which would have carried a sentence of up to six years in prison and a $250,000 fine, was, according to William Quigley, a professor of law at Loyola University in New Orleans and legal adviser for the defendants, “clearly a sign of intimidation on the government’s part in order to stifle dissent.”