M26: justice has a conniption fit

Innocent until proven guilty? Not anymore. One of the most basic principals of our law has been trashed regularly and systematically by our courts since September 11th. While what is happening to four peace activists here in New York at this moment may not be the most egregious examples of a justice system turned upside down and striking out at people all around the world, it's no small thing for the victims themselves and for the broad and fundamental evil of the judicial precedent it establishes.

Sixteen people were arrested in Manhatan on March 26, 2003, for (intentionally) tying up rush hour Midtown traffic in a protest against the murder of American peace activist Rachel Corrie by an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip, as well as the U.S. attack on Iraq. They were all convicted on March 22 this year on the outrageous, Orwellian charge, "obstructing governmental administration."

Twelve of the codefendents have been sentenced to community service and fines. Four have not been sentenced yet, because the Manhattan District Attorney had a judge unseal their older records. The D.A. then cited their previous demonstration arrests, most of which resulted in all charges being dismissed, as a reason for the judge to sentence them to an (unspecified) jail term (under the law the judge can sentence each of the four to anything from 0 to 365 days in jail). The twelve codefendants who were earlier given sentences far less severe did not have their records unsealed.

The four remaining now face posssible jail time for alleged acts in the past which were never proven in a court of law.

Every citizen, whether active in political demonstrations or just unfortunate to be arrested for any offense, however minor, and including misdemeaners, must be made to understand that there is no longer any assumption of innocence in the American courts. If you have appeared before a judge at any time in the past, not been tried but rather had your case dismissed and its record "sealed," the fact that you had been in that court may be used against you years later in order to determine your sentencing for a conviction totally unrelated to the previous offense.

The D.A. and the judge merely have to be really mad at you, and they don't have to tell anyone why.

The corollary to this incredible development has to be that from now on no one will be able to afford to accept a "dismissal" of his or her offences, regardless of the practical attractions of such a resolution, but must instead pursue every charge all the way through the courts. Of course neither the individual nor the judiciary is actually going to be able to live with that burden; something will have to give - or explode.

Like so much else that falls under the rubric, "everything has changed since 9/11," the politicization of our courts is swiftly contributing to the destruction of the society we think we are defending.

The four M26 defendents (the name refers to March 26, the date of the action for which they were arrested) who still await their fate have already gone through two appeals, and both have been rejected. The outcome of a third appeal will not be known prior to November 18, the scheduled date of their sentencing.

The range of possible outcomes runs from the best-case scenario - fines and community service, despite their "records" of dismissed charges - to the worst case scenario - taken directly from the courtroom to Rikers Island Penitentiary.

They've put out an appeal for people to be with them in the courtroom on the morning of the sentencing, since it's vitally important to show the judge that they have community support. And of course some of the media will be there.

The people who await the disposition of their cases have one more request to make of their supporters, and it's characteristically thoughtful and generous. This is Steve Quester:

AP4 will see many cases that day, not just ours. Please come at 9 am so you can get a seat in the courtroom before it fills up. And please keep in mind that there will be many defendants and their families and friends present. Unlike the four of us, few if any of those defendants will be White. Unlike the four of us, none of those defendants will benefit from an outpouring of community support. If you are able to stay for some of the cases that follow ours, please do. I cringe at the thought of an exodus of hundreds of mostly White people from the courtroom as soon as we're sentenced.

THE LOGISTICS: Go to 100 Centre Street, which you can locate here. They will be on the 4th floor, in Arraignment Part (AP) 4. The nearest subways are the J, M, N, Q, R, W, Z, and 6 trains to Canal Street. You can also take the 4 or 5 to Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall, or the B or D to Grand Street. The closest stop on the A, C, and E trains is Canal Street; Franklin Street on the 1 train, and Chambers Street on the 2 or 3.

Check www.m26.org in the days leading up to the sentencing, to learn about any (unlikely) possibility of a further delay in sentencing.

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Published on October 18, 2004 7:54 PM.

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