First-time arrestees Cheryl Oliver, Jean Burke, and Abby Guskind plan to continue fighting restrictions on abortion passed by the General Assembly.
State Police defend the Capitol from the March 3 protesters.
photo by lisa provence
Two Charlottesville women are reluctantly leaning toward accepting a plea agreement in a high-profile body-rights protest case, while a third indicates she plans to reject the the deal recently offered in court.
The three were among the 30 arrested in early March on the Capitol steps in Richmond during a protest of legislation passed by the General Assembly requiring an ultrasound before an abortion can be performed. The controversial clamp-down mustered riot-gear equipped officers facing off against peaceful protestors, who were detained for as long as seven hours, among them a 76-year-old man.
The arrests struck such a nerve that House Minority Leader David Toscano scolded Capitol Police in a letter, noting "the images of armed State Police in full riot gear removing Virginia citizens from the Capitol steps is troubling to many of our constituents and potentially places Virginia unfavorably in the national spotlight."
If the Commonwealth wanted to downplay this chapter in its history, a recent move suggests otherwise. The Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney, rather than let a deputy continue the prosecution, has stepped in to lead it.
During the more than three-hours-long hearing in Manchester General District Court May 25, Judge David Cheek rejected the defendants' motion that there was no law or regulation to criminalize sitting on the Capitol steps, according to attorney Wayne Powell, who represents 18 protesters, including the three from Charlottesville.
"This is clearly a First Amendment issue," says Powell. "I'm surprised by the level of desire of the Commonwealth in Richmond to prosecute these cases."
Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring– the man who took over from his deputy– disagrees. To a point.
"Although folks refused to follow instructions, we believe they were there to express their beliefs," says Herring. "I think the best by-product of this would be a close examination of the regs so we can look at how people can protest at the Capitol."
Adds Herring: "I have no interest in anyone getting convicted. It's the same with the Capitol Police."
And yet, while the unlawful assembly charges have already been dropped, Herring won't let the trespassing charges go without a deal: If those charged admit the police acted lawfully in arresting them for trespassing, the judge will take the case under advisement and dismiss it after six months– if there aren't further arrests.
"Why fight with the 76-year-old man who's out on the steps?" says an unhappy Powell. "This was not a rowdy crowd."
The protesters must decide by June 19, and Powell (two of whose clients took an earlier deal to do 25 hours community service) says he's unsure how many people will take the latest deal.
"I am one of the ones holding my nose in accepting the deal stipulating the police acted properly," says Jean Burke, 48, a receptionist at the Charlottesville Free Clinic. "I'm having a hard time with that, but I'm accepting it because of health issues."
She notes that before and after the March 3 demonstration, various groups gathered on the steps of the Capitol without arrest, a situation she blasts as "selective enforcement."
Burke also rejects Capitol Police testimony that the protesters were blocking entrance and egress to the Capitol, particularly since the protest occurred on a Saturday when the General Assembly was not in session.
"It's clear from the photographic evidence," she says, "that we were off to the side and there was a great deal of room."
"I'm ready for it to be over," says Cheryl Oliver, 55, a former Charlottesville Democratic headquarters office manager, "because we have other battles to fight."
Oliver points to a planned June 15 demonstration in Richmond at the Virginia Department of Health when its Board of Health votes on regulations to make abortion-providing women's health clinics adhere to the same standards as hospitals.
"What happens if we are arrested again?" asks Oliver.
One of the Charlottesville Three, however, remains eager to remain in the legal battle.
"I'm not taking the deal," says Abby Guskind, 50, of Keswick. "I don't agree that the law enforcement acted lawfully."
"I want them totally exonerated," says defense attorney Powell, who is handling all the legal work pro bono. He says the regulations are overly broad and notes that even the commonwealth's attorney says they need to be modified.
"There's an easy solution," says Powell. "Dismiss the charges and rewrite the regulations."