WASHINGTON, DC – Today, 13 death penalty abolition activists went on trial in DC Superior Court to face a charge stemming from a January 17 arrest this year at the U.S. Supreme Court. On that date, 14 protestors unfurled a 30 foot banner, which read “STOP EXECUTIONS!” on the steps of the Court. Such displays of banners are prohibited under U.S. law.
At trial, the pro-se defendants made a case against the death penalty, and also in support of the first amendment. They challenged the constitutionality of the statue prohibiting people from displaying at the Supreme Court “a flag, banner, or device designed or adapted to bring into public notice a party, organization, or movement.”
After six hours of testimony, review of the evidence and presentation of oral arguments, Judge Juliet McKenna found all 13 defendants guilty and imposed a range of sentences, varying from time served and a $100 fine (plus $50 mandatory contribution to the Victims of Violent Crime Compensation Fund), up through suspended sentences of 5 to 60 days. Additionally, in various cases, 50 hours of community service was imposed, and/or 1-3 years of probation with a stay-away order from the Supreme Court grounds during probation.
Four of the defendants declared in court that they would not pay any fines or participate in community service for an arrest that they believed to be unlawful and unjust. The judge then imposed a 60 day jail sentence on 80-year old DC resident Eve Tetaz, and a 5 day jail sentence on Jack Payden-Travers (a Lynchburg, Virginia resident) and Amber and Kevin Mason (both DC residents).
Immediately following court, Tetaz said, “Of course I don’t want to go to jail for 60 days. But 60 days or 24 hours… it doesn’t matter. What is important is that I spoke truth to power, which was the only morally responsible thing to do.”
Payden-Travers, Amber Mason and Kevin Mason began serving their sentences immediately Wednesday afternoon, and Tetaz will self report to DC jail on Monday, July 2.
All 13 defendants represented themselves, with DC attorney Mark Goldstone acting as attorney advisor to the group.
The “defendants spoke eloquently and passionately” stated Judge McKenna at the conclusion of the trial. “What a marvelous example of teamwork.” The judge then commended defendant Randy Gardner for “channeling your experiences…in productive ways giving back to the community.” Gardner, whose brother was executed by a Utah firing squad in June 2010 said on the stand, “I can’t imagine teaching [my son] that it is okay to kill someone for killing someone else.” Gardner’s 14-year old son sat in the courtroom watching as his dad took the stand as one of the three defense witnesses.
At the time of the January arrest, five of the defendants did not carry any identification, and when asked for their names by the police, each responded, “I am Troy Davis.” Troy Davis was executed last September in Georgia under serious doubt about his guilt. Although this act of solidarity did not result in any increased penalties at trial for the involved defendants, Troy Davis’s name and memory were brought into the courtroom.
Daniel Flynn, one of the defense witnesses who took the name of Troy Davis upon arrest, testified on the stand, “Troy Davis represents what is wrong with the system. Troy Davis is any one of us in this court here today.” Flynn said that because of Mr. Davis’s execution, “I had to do something more. Something different.”
The January 17 protest that resulted in the arrest of 14 activists took place on the 35th anniversary of the execution of Gary Gilmore, the first execution under contemporary laws. The protestors included Amber Mason, Kevin Mason, Eve Tetaz, Daniel Flynn, Anne Feczko, Scott Langley, Jack Payden-Travers, Ron Kaz, Anna Shockley, Randy Gardner, Charity Lee, Rachel Lawler, Jon Dunn and Tom Muther.
This every-five-year protest is organized by The Abolitionist Action Committee, an ad-hoc group of individuals committed to highly visible and effective public education for alternatives to the death penalty through nonviolent direct action.
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