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Peace and justice 

The St. Patrick's Day Seven trial ended in a hung jury; do the defendants deserve to be re-tried?

click to enlarge Taking victory from a hung jury, the St. Patricks Day - Seven defendants share their - feelings with supporters during a celebration after the - mistrial.
  • Taking victory from a hung jury, the St. Patricks Day Seven defendants share their feelings with supporters during a celebration after the mistrial.

It wasn't exactly victory, but for the seven peace marchers arrested at the 2007 St. Patrick's Day parade, a mistrial due to a hung jury was a sign last Friday that Colorado Springs was opening its mind.

According to one juror, the jury couldn't agree on a fundamental issue that affected all the defendants, who were charged with purposely blocking the parade. The juror mumbled "intent" as he was walking away.

Shortly before the jury's decision, Judge Robert Warren had given a second explanation of intent that the defense said unfairly lowered the requirements for a conviction.

"This case involves at least two things," distraught defense attorney Greg Walta told the judge. "The intent to obstruct and the actual obstruction."

At that point, Walta said he expected convictions, and he would appeal based on the judge's comments. So there was some relief when the jury came back without a verdict.

Some defendants had also been concerned that a jury in this conservative city would not look past the fact they were marching for peace.

"I really think it would be almost impossible to just look at [whether] we blocked the passage of the parade," defendant Betty Kerwin said.

The court did try to keep the focus of the trial on the actual charge of intentionally blocking passage.

One point was not contested: Parade Chairman John O'Donnell possessed the one and only city permit to have a parade. That meant O'Donnell decided who could be in his parade.

The prosecution sought to prove four more arguments: The marchers knew they weren't wanted, but stayed in the parade route, refused to move and blocked the parade.

They knew they weren't wanted: For the prosecution, this part of the case was simple. Police and parade officials say they told the marchers to leave.

"How confusing is it when a police officer says, "You're blocking the road; get out of the road'?" prosecutor Scott Patlin said.

But the defense said the marchers thought the police and parade officials were confused because the group had prior permission to be in the parade.

The defense pointed out that the peace marchers had participated in the 2006 St. Patrick's Day parade with permission and without incident. No rules had changed, and O'Donnell had sent them an invitation to the 2007 parade. They had permission to march.

The group spent an hour in the staging area, and was cleared to march by parade officials.

Apparently, even O'Donnell was confused as to why he asked marchers to leave. The defense showed O'Donnell gave one explanation to the court for the marchers' dismissal, and gave another in an editorial he authored for the Gazette.

The marchers were in the parade route: Parade official Doug Haug testified he stopped the marchers because he was concerned about their anti-war banners. Haug testified he told "someone" that the Bookman van, the only vehicle in the group, could continue. The peace marchers, he said, would need to disperse.

Shortly afterward, police were alerted, and the disabled Elizabeth Fineron got out of the passenger seat of the van to see what the commotion was about. The Bookman van continued forward until a police officer arrested its driver, Eric Verlo. The van was then parked on the east side of Tejon, meaning the parade had to continue on the west side of the street.

Here, the case got sticky. Several officers claimed marchers were subsequently arrested while sitting, standing, or kneeling in the middle of the road and refusing to move. But under cross-examination, it was revealed four of the defendants were on the east side of the street when they were arrested. The defense claimed those marchers posed no more blockage than the parked van. The prosecution disagreed.

A police officer testified another defendant was arrested after he left the parade route.

The last person to be arrested was Fineron, the only defendant to testify in the case. She said she left the van to talk to officers, but instead was grabbed by two officers who yanked her, causing her to trip and fall. She says they dragged her on the pavement, causing abrasions on her leg and stomach. Following the incident, Fineron says she poked an officer in order to get arrested and have her "day in court" (a fact that was not disputed by the prosecution).

"I saw the wound and it was bleeding, and it was hurting," Fineron said. "I said, "I'm not going to go home and pretend this didn't happen.'"

The defense produced photos and video to support her testimony.

Several prosecution witnesses claimed Fineron was dragged only after she sat in the middle of the street and refused to move.

The marchers refused to move and blocked the parade: Prosecution witnesses said the marchers were asked multiple times to move and refused. The prosecution claimed the marchers caused a scene to call attention to their message of peace.

But the defense pointed to the testimony of Peter Page, one of the parade volunteers on the scene. Page said he directed marchers to the side to discuss the situation, though he never intended to speak with them. That meant some defendants might have thought they were following orders.

The other defendants, Fineron and Verlo, were taken from the scene before they understood the situation, the defense said.

Police Sgt. Robert Weber testified that when he arrived on the scene, marchers "didn't seem to know whether they were supposed to keep going or whether they were supposed to stop."

Weber also reviewed police tapes, revealing only one minute elapsed between a dispatch indicating confusion about the marchers' permit, and a call for a squad car in which to put arrestees.

"Bang, bang, bang, they're all arrested," Walta said.

How long the parade was blocked was a source of contention. The defense said it was just a few minutes, while the prosecution claimed it was 11 minutes.

The prosecution also claimed that the parked Bookman van constituted blockage, even if the parade continued around it. Prosecutors repeatedly brought up a Chipotle burrito float that they said struggled to get around the van.

What now?

The city has not said whether it will pursue a second trial against the defendants, but a pre-trial hearing is set for Oct. 2.

Walta said the city would be foolish to try the seven again, saying, "If the city pursues this case again, it's a waste of the taxpayer's money."

The defendants have the option to pursue civil cases for claims of excessive force or violation of their right to freedom of speech. Kerwin said she won't pursue a civil case, and she's tired of fighting the criminal case.

"What kind of city are they projecting to the nation?" she said. "I'm just so embarrassed for this city. It was a matter of free speech and we had no intention of hurting anyone."

stanley@csindy.com

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