While the jury trial of 12 Occupy Philly members who held a Nov. 18, 2011, protest inside a Wells Fargo Bank branch dragged on last week, District Attorney Seth Williams laid out his case — on Twitter, of all places. He tweeted (not, it must be said, unbaited) that, “accepting the punishment is part of civil disobedience” and “people can’t intentionally break the law 4 publicity purposes & then hope to benefit by telling me to prosecute others.”
Yet that’s just what Occupy supporters were telling him. After all, the DA originally offered defendants participation in an Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) program, according to Larry Krasner, one of seven lawyers working the case pro bono. Last June, the 12 opted to go to trial in Municipal Court and were found guilty of defiant trespass and conspiracy to commit defiant trespass. After that, some defendants sought the ARD. The DA refused, they say: Hence, the weeklong Common Pleas Court trial. The 12 were acquitted Tuesday.
“It’s astounding that they’re occupying a courtroom for an entire week to prosecute these people,” Krasner said. “This is a courtroom where the judge routinely has really serious cases, gunpoint robberies.” He pointed out a civil-affairs officer seen hugging defendants on his way to the witness stand. This is not the norm in criminal courtrooms.
Even the defendants seemed bemused. Take an exchange in which Assistant DA Jim Stinsman asked defendant Larry Swetman if he thought he had permission to be at the bank. “My First Amendment was my permit. … I took the fact that the bank was open … there was a waiting area for me to wait in,” Swetman said. Stinsman asked: “Is that what you were doing? Waiting?” Swetman’s response: “Waiting on the world to change, I suppose.”
The defense argued that the 12 were protected by the First Amendment, as well as by a reasonable due justification to speak against an immediate and greater harm (i.e., Wells Fargo’s predatory lending), and that the jury had the legal ability to acquit based solely on the defendants’ good character. Stinsman, on the other hand, closed with an admirable impression of an Occupy “mic check” to suggest the problem was not the content of the defendants’ speech but their actions — that is, disrupting business. Eagles fans shouting, “Mic check: We are the people of Philadelphia and we are not leaving this bank until Andy Reid is fired,” he insisted, would face the same repercussions.
Defendant Dustin Slaughter, however, said the medium was the message. He was “excited” that that message was heard by a jury of his peers.