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Occupy Boston defendants thrilled charges dropped, but frustrated concerns won't be aired in court

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  February 11, 2013 12:51 PM

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Five people who were arrested at the Occupy Boston encampment in 2011 met in a courthouse Monday morning to celebrate a decision by Suffolk County prosecutors to drop all of the charges against.

The move by prosecutors on Friday came more than one year after their cases began.

On Monday, the group stood alongside their lawyers outside a courtroom on the fifth floor of Boston Municipal Court, gathering at the time and place they had been scheduled to go to trial, something they said they had been looking forward to.

They had planned to argue before a judge and jury that their arrests were an unconstitutional infringement of their First Amendment rights. The outcome of the cases could have set important precedent.

“We thought it would be a chance for us to stand up for free speech,” said Andrea Hill, one of the defendants.

But on Friday, prosecutors dropped all charges against the five defendants and against 22 others who faced similar charges for their arrests at Occupy Boston.

They were among about 185 people who were arrested on charges, mostly for trespassing or unlawful assembly, during two 2011 police raids on the Occupy camp along the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway – the first when the group tried to expand the camp on Oct. 11 and the second when police shut down the camp on Dec. 10.

Protesters were calling attention to the nation’s economic inequities.

All those arrested were given free legal representation by attorneys from the Massachusetts chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. For most defendants, prosecutors agreed to drop charges or convert them into civil infractions, which are settled by paying a fine.

But 27 defendants declined those offers, pleading not guilty to the charges and fighting in court ever since. Their court proceedings were split into five smaller groups.

Hill, Ashley Brewer, Brianne Milder, Tammi Arford and Kerry McDonald, would have been the first group to go before a judge.

When the charges were dropped Friday, that essentially ended the court cases that began 14 months ago.

The defendants said they were disappointed because they had wanted to stand up for free speech rights and felt they would ultimately win the court battle.

“We set up a whole trial – a political trial no less. So it was quite a slap in the face for them to drop the charges at the last minute after they put us through all this,” said McDonald. “It’s pretty sneaky.”

In November, a trial start date in December was set, according to the defendants. That trial was later pushed back to a start date of Feb. 11.

“We did so much hard work and we didn’t take a deal because we didn’t believe we did anything wrong,” added Milder. “To have us dragged through the court system for this long is really terrible.”

The group and their lawyers took particular exception with statements made last week by the prosecution.

On Friday, Jake Wark, a spokesman for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, told the Globe that prosecutors had decided to drop the charges because, for the past 14 months, the defendants had abided by certain court-imposed restrictions, which were similar to conditions that other Occupy protesters had agreed to in resolving their cases.

“There’s now parity with prior cases arising from the protests,” Wark said on Friday. “They’ve served essentially the same sentences.”

But, those words were described by Hill as being “pretty disturbing.”

“It implies that they can sentence use without going to court,” she said. “It’s a stifling of speech

“It implies that we were guilty,” added Arford.

On Monday, Wark responded saying: “We achieved sensible dispositions for all of the protest-related arrests.”

“No one associated with Occupy Boston received a criminal conviction,” he added. “That was never our goal. There is parity however with about half of the other defendants Receiving pretrial probation and the other half agreeing to civil proceedings rather than criminal cases.”

Wark also contested the notion that prosecutors had dragged out the court proceedings: “We offered similar dispositions at the day of arraignment and the defendants insisted on criminal proceedings. This was an appropriate use of discretion [by prosecutors].”

No formal court proceedings took place Monday, but the five defendants met with each other and their lawyers to share congratulations and to plan ahead.

“We are happy about the charges being dropped and we see it as a victory,” Arford said.

They will hold to a press conference Tuesday morning at the National Lawyers Guild offices at 14 Beacon St. to discuss the charges being dropped and the court process that preceded.

They also talked about possibly taking more legal action related to their arrests and subsequent court cases.

“It’s not over yet,” said Susan Church, one of the attorneys. “We’re considering several different legal options available to us.”

E-mail Matt Rocheleau at mjrochele@gmail.com.
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