Occupy Wall Street Protesters On Trial, Accused Of Trespassing On Church Property


Eight Occupy Wall Street protesters are on trial this week in New York Criminal Court, charged with trespassing in relation to a December 17th action in which demonstrators entered a fenced portion of Duarte Square owned by Trinity Church.

Over two days of trial, the prosecution has called witnesses it hopes will cement the trespassing charges. Trinity’s general counsel, Amy Jedlinka, testified that as the custodian of the property, she had not permitted Occupy Wall Street to enter the space. A parade of police officers, as well Trinity’s head of security, testified that they saw protesters going over, under and through the fence that surrounded the property, and arrested the defendants inside.

There’s no doubt that at least some of the defendants did hop the fence into the parcel. Retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard, wearing his long purple robes, was the first over the fence that day, recorded not only on the police video shown at trial but in the media.

With video evidence showing defendants hopping the fence, the four defense lawyers have to pursue more nuanced strategies for introducing reasonable doubt that their clients “knowingly entered or remained unlawfully” in the plot.

On the one hand, the defense is arguing that Trinity Church wasn’t actually in a position to deny the protesters access to the park, since an agreement in effect at the time ceded use of the property to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which installed art in the space and opened it to the public. They are also attempting to question Trinity’s claim on the property, which stretches back to a royal land grant older than the United States.

This line of defense has been hampered by what the defense says is Trinity’s failure to fully comply with their subpoenas for relevant documents, but Judge Matthew Sciarrino has denied requests to delay the trial and directed the defense to mount its best case with what they have.

The defense is also trying to show that their clients could have been confused about their right to be on the property, and that they weren’t given any notice that their presence there was unlawful before they were arrested. After all, they argue, there was a sign on the fence that day that said “Open to the Public,” and neither the NYPD nor Trinity’s own security guards made any effort to prevent the crowd from entering the property or to tell them not to. Only after protesters had been inside for ten or fifteen minutes did police move in and start making arrests.

Whether either of these arguments will be persuasive to Judge Sciarrino (the case is not being tried before a jury) remains to be seen. If found guilty, the eight defendants could face 90 days in Rikers on the trespassing charges. Mark Adams, one of the defendants, also faces charges stemming from video footage that appears to show him using bolt-cutters on the fence.

The trial continues this afternoon and is expected to extend into tomorrow as well. If it isn’t concluded by Thursday, court scheduling could push the remainder back into October.

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