The Scourge of Her Conviction

Activist Elena Sassower annoyed congress, her trial judge, and defenders of free speech—all the way to jail

At one point, while Sassower was testifying, the judge had her removed from the courtroom and placed in a holding cell for an hour. (Citing the pending appeal, Holeman declined to comment for this article through a court spokesperson.)

Given the environment, Sassower's supporters weren't surprised that a jury found her guilty. But no one was prepared for what happened next. Prosecutors had recommended only a suspended five-day jail term, six months of probation, and a course in anger management. A report by D.C. Court Services—which aptly called Sassower a "dedicated" activist whose "passion to demand change is often perceived as overzealous"—suggested community service.

At the June 28 sentencing, Holeman disregarded this advice. At first, he handed down a 92-day prison term, offering to suspend jail time if she'd agree to a two-year probation. He laid out the elaborate conditions: Sassower would have to perform 300 hours of community service, pay up to $750 in fines, maintain a daily log of activities, stay away from the Capitol grounds, avoid writing or calling senators, undergo anger management therapy, and write letters of apology to, among others, Clinton, Schumer, and Judge Wesley.

Elena Sassower at home with her "silent witnesses"—the boxes of legal documents she brought to her sentencing
photo: Brian Kennedy
Elena Sassower at home with her "silent witnesses"—the boxes of legal documents she brought to her sentencing

Sassower viewed this last as the "most odious" of the conditions. "I am not remorseful," she declared, "and I will not lie."

"Be quiet," the judge said. "Any effort to communicate additional information will constitute a violation of your probation."

He continued: "Ms. Sassower, the answer is yes or no. Do you accept the conditions of your probation?"


Holeman retracted his offer and doubled his sentence—to 180 days.

Court watchers were shocked. "Elena deserved no more than six seconds in jail," Goldstone says, let alone six months.

It's hard to say whether those who took Sassower to court—or got her arrested—agree. Asked if prosecutors believe she got what she deserved, Phillips said: "I expect her appeal will deal with whether her sentence was fair, and this office does not comment on cases pending before the appeals court." Requests from the Voice seeking comment from senators Clinton and Schumer were not answered.

Truth in consequences

The law against disrupting Congress—"to utter loud, threatening, or abusive language, or to engage in any disorderly or disruptive conduct . . . with the intent to impede, disrupt, or disturb the orderly conduct of any session of Congress"—leaves room for interpretation. Which may explain why Elena Sassower had the book thrown at her and dissenting citizens have not. Consider these recent incidents:

In May 2004 eight protesters at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing unfurled a banner and hollered, "Fire Rumsfeld for war crimes!" They were not arrested.

In April 2004 a human rights activist went to the confirmation hearing of John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. As Negroponte testified, the activist stood up and called the then appointee a "state terrorist." He was merely asked to sit down and be quiet.

In September 2003 a protester interrupted the testimony of L. Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. He was escorted away without incident. The next day, he returned and protested again. Only then was he charged with disrupting Congress. In July, he was convicted on two counts and sentenced to the maximum of six months for each. K.L.

Sassower fulfilled her six-month stint at the Correctional Treatment Facility, a D.C. medium-security jail, languishing in a wing populated by drug offenders. She was confined to her cell for 23 and a half hours a day. She tried to occupy herself by drafting legal briefs on scraps of paper—filing three unsuccessful motions for early release before a team of pro bono attorneys took on her case last September.

"Jail is a dreadful place," says Sassower. "People regarded me with suspicion. They were hostile. I was frightened."

That Sassower had the courage to withstand prison has made her a cause célèbre within the judicial-reform movement. Her case has caught fire on the Web, appearing on legal-victims' sites and citizen-rights listservs. She's enjoyed an outpouring of support—from letter-writing campaigns to petitions to honorary poems. Last month, after getting a flurry of e-mails from across the country, the CitizeNet Reporter named Sassower a "White Plains person of the year" and "defender of the Constitution."

Her criminal case, in many ways, has done more than her years of dogged activism to expose abuses in the justice system. After all, the system failed Sassower at every turn—from her arrest to her sentencing. If her ordeal can shed light on misconduct, she says, "maybe what happened to me will force real reform."

For now, there is Sassower's planned appeal. Alyza Lewin, one of the four leading attorneys working on the case, says the legal team is now researching its brief, which the court will probably hear in the spring. The appeal will argue that Sassower's actions don't fit the definition for disrupting Congress, and may challenge the law's constitutionality.

Her attorneys say citizens shouldn't have to feel cowed by the prospect of six months in jail. "I hope we get her conviction vacated," Lewin says, "not just for Elena's sake, but for the public's."

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