by Charles Ellis
DEWITT, N.Y.--DeWitt Town Justice David Gideon ruled Thursday night that 31 protesters were guilty on two charges of disorderly conduct.
But, Gideon said, he spent “many a sleepless night” before making his decision and that he learned a great deal during the five-day nonjury trial, which ended Nov. 5.
|Clare Grady was sentenced to fifteen days in jail.|
The defendants were among 38 people arrested April 22 after they participated in a “die-in” at the main entrance of the New York Air National Guard Base at Hancock Field to protest the MQ-9 Reaper drones, which the 174th Fighter Wing of the guard has been remotely flying over Afghanistan, from Syracuse, since late 2009.
Fred McRoberts, assigned by the Onondaga County District Attorney’s Office to prosecute the case, asked the judge to sentence the defendants to 15 days in jail. Instead, Gideon gave no jail time to most of the defendants along with 20 or 25 hours of community service and $250 fines, plus a $125 state surcharge.
The defendants — with the help of testimony by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark — had argued that they should not be prosecuted for their actions. Instead, they should be applauded for trying to block the use of drones from which the United States fires on sovereign nations and uses to kill innocent civilians, in violation of international law, they said.
In fact, they said, they are required to prevent the United States from violating international law.
On Good Friday, most of the defendants lay down in the main entrance roads to the base, off East Molloy Road. Two were in wheelchairs.
The protesters were accused of obstructing vehicular or pedestrian traffic. In addition, they were accused of refusing to comply with a lawful order from police to disperse.
Some of the defendants had already pleaded guilty, had charges dropped or will go to trial at a later date.
Gideon said he was sympathetic to the defendants’ position.
“Many issues were raised (during the trial) that were not heretofore contemplated by this court on a personal level,” Gideon said in his ruling, “for which this court personally acknowledges a new and different understanding, making the decision … that much more difficult.”
Nonetheless, he ruled them guilty because the defendants clearly blocked a roadway and ignored the police order, he said.
In his ruling, Gideon said he recognized the importance of civil disobedience, but said it is more effective when the participants face consequences for their actions.
“Ultimately, the defendants have arguably accomplished that which they sought by their actions — the drawing of acute attention to their message,” he said.
Many of the defendants, who ranged in age from 18 to 87, thanked Gideon for not narrowly focusing on the issue of disorderly conduct.
“He was listening to arguments that have been consistently ignored by the highest courts in the land,” Brian Terrell, a defendant from Iowa, said at a news conference before Gideon announced his decision.
But some of the defendants said they would not pay any fines, which are required to be paid by Feb. 29. Gideon told them if they don’t pay, it will show up on their credit records and might make it more difficult for them to borrow in the future.
Others said they wouldn’t perform any community service because they already do. He told them to send the court proof of any volunteer work they do for nonprofit groups. It also is required to be done by Feb. 29.
Four defendants were sentenced to jail.
Ellen Grady, 49, of Ithaca, was sentenced to 15 days in jail after she made forceful statements about American foreign policy and asked the judge to give her the maximum sentence. Terrell, 55, was given 10 days in jail.
Judy Bello, 61, of Webster, was sentenced to stay in jail until 5 p.m. Sunday because Gideon said her actions — including bringing so-called “bloody shrouds” to the protest — were premeditated. She said it was no different from wearing a T-shirt.
Defendant Daniel Burns, 51, of Ithaca, said it was “outrageous” for Bello to be jailed because she was one of the weakest defendants. He practically dared Gideon to give him the same jail sentence, and the judge complied, citing his record of previous arrests.
“My children (age 9, 6 and 7 months) will be fine (because he is married and has a large extended family),” Burns said. “It’s the children of Iraq and Afghanistan that won’t be fine.”
The defendants included Syracuse-area residents Ed Kinane, Rae Kramer, Julienne Oldfield, Kathleen Rumpf, Ann Tiffany, Rich Vallejo and Paul Wittjung.
The action was sponsored by the Upstate NY Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars, of which the Syracuse Peace Council is a part. The Coalition consists of activists from Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, Ithaca, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica.
Contact Charles Ellis at 470-2218 or firstname.lastname@example.org