The week-long trial of eight Occupy Wall Street demonstrators concluded yesterday afternoon with guilty verdicts and a jail sentence.
The eight men were part of a crowd that entered a fenced-in parcel controlled by Trinity Church December 17, hoping to turn the space into a new camp for the movement that had been displaced from Zuccotti Park a month before.
In many respects the case appeared a slam-dunk for prosecutors — all but one of the defendants was arrested inside the property, and photographic and video evidence from the press, the New York Police Department and Trinity’s own security cameras showed many of them going over, under, or through the fence.
The defense team had attempted to raise doubts — both about whether the property was obviously closed and about whether Trinity had legal standing to deny them entrance.
The defense attempted to question Trinity’s claim on the property, which the church traces back to a 1705 land grant from Queen Anne. Defense attorneys said that effort was hampered by what they called a failure of Trinity agents to fully comply with a subpoena for documents, but Judge Matthew Sciarrino ruled that the trial should go forward in any case.
With that argument partially thwarted, the defense instead relied on the argument that their clients might reasonably have thought they weren’t trespassing. They pointed out an agreement between Trinity and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council in effect on December 17 to keep the space open to the public, and pointed to a sign on the fence surrounding the plot that declared the park open to the public from 7 a.m. to dusk.
“As to intent to trespass, [prosecutors] have no case,” defense attorney Paul Mills said in his closing arguments. “Where signs say ‘Open to the Public,” conviction for trespass is impossible under the law.”
The “Open to the Public” sign wasn’t the only one hanging on the fence that day; other signs read “Private Property, No Trespassing.” But Mills argued that the private ownership of the property wasn’t in question and the demonstrators wouldn’t have been trespassing if indeed the property was open to the public.
Mills argued that the dramatic entrance into the property was a theatrical form of political speech, not an illegal act of trespass.
“If the only way to get people’s attention is by quietly spending tons of money,” he said, “then this is no longer a democracy, it is a money-ocracy.”
In their summation, prosecutors allowed that the defendants’ actions may have been a form of protest.
“That’s fine,” said Assistant District Attorney Lee Langston. “It may even be admirable. But it’s time to hold them accountable for their choices.”
Judge Sciarrino clearly agreed. He issued his his ruling immediately after closing arguments, finding all eight defendants guilty of trespassing and further finding one of them, Mark Adams, guilty of attempted criminal mischief and attempted criminal possession of burglar’s tools. Adams was seen on surveillance video using what appeared to be bolt cutters to open the fence.
“This was the use of siege equipment to storm a castle,” Sciarrino said in his ruling, adding that political demonstrations are no excuse for violating property rights. “This nation is founded on the right of private property, and that right is no less important than the first amendment.”
Over the objection of the defense lawyers, Sciarrino moved immediately on to sentencing, slapping seven of the defendants with fines and four days of community service. In the case of Adams, prosecutors asked for a 30-day jail sentence. Sciarrino gave him 45.
“The District Attorney’s Office greatly respects the First Amendment right of citizens to protest,” said the District Attorney’s Communications Director Erin Duggan in a statement after the ruling. “This right must be exercised in a way that does not violate the law or infringe upon other citizens’ rights.”
Trinity spokeswoman Linda Hanick also issued a statement after the ruling, which read in part, “While we are sympathetic to many of the OWS protestors’ stated goals, we do not support the seizure of private property.”
Retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard, arrested in his purple cassock December 17 and among those convicted yesterday, said he was most troubled by the decision of Trinity Church — which functions as both a religious institution and a corporation with massive real estate assets — to cooperate with the prosecution.
“‘Trespass’ is not a word I’ve ever heard in connection with a church,” Packard said after the trial. “Sanctuary, refuge and radical hospitality — those are more familiar terms. I’m very disappointed that Trinity is more concerned about its cash-flow being interrupted than embodying the body of Christ.”
Bill Dobbs, an Occupy Wall Street participant who observed much of the trial, was philosophical about the verdict.
“Trinity could have given great assistance to a nascent movement for social justice, and they chose not to,” he said. “But this is just one piece in a much bigger battle — social change doesn’t come gift-wrapped. This is a real struggle, and Mark Adams is going to be serving real jail time.”