NEWS- Protesters acquitted: In arrests, timing is all
May 21 was graduation day for nine of them. The next day, however, they sat through another official, though less joyous, ceremony: standing trial for misdemeanor trespassing charges stemming from their mid-April Madison Hall sit-in.
They are the so-called "UVA 17," members of the Living Wage Campaign, whose efforts to win higher wages for low-level UVA employees brought them and an assistant professor to Charlottesville General District Court May 22. As with graduation, the president of the university spoke, and there were cheers when the proceedings ended.
Not all the defendants had reason for celebration. While the 17 students won a "not guilty" verdict from Judge Robert Downer under the theory that the university botched the timing of the arrests, assistant anthropology professor Wende Marshall was found guilty of trespassing.
The proceedings were supposed to begin at 10am, but it was almost 11:30am before the 17 students and Marshall squeezed into three rows in the small courtroom on Market Street.
Supporters of the 17 packed the room, while more than a dozen witnesses, including UVA President John Casteen, COO Leonard Sandridge, Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer Pat Lampkin, and Dean of Students Penny Rue slipped in through alternate entrances and cooled their heels in witness rooms.
"We're used to waiting," said newly graduated Hannah Rubenstein.
John Mausert-Mooney came from Fairfax to be with his son, Andrew, a rising junior who'd also been charged with destruction of property, a charge that was not prosecuted.
"I always told him, don't get arrested for stupid things– get arrested for something noble," said Mausert-Mooney pe`re.
Once in court, Steve Rosenfield, attorney for the students, recounted how the 17 sat down in Madison Hall, UVA's executive office building, on April 12 and asked to be heard about the Living Wage campaign. Three days later, Sandridge gave the students five minutes to leave. What happened next was the key to the acquittal.
But first came testimony over Marshall's actions.
Rosenfield tried two strategies to acquit Marshall, arguing that her First Amendment rights were violated and that Casteen and Sandridge didn't have the authority to boot people from university buildings.
Judge Downer didn't buy either of those arguments, and at 1:29pm, he found Marshall guilty of trespassing and sentenced her to 10 days in jail– suspended on the condition of good behavior for two years.
The judge also mused about civil disobedience, and said such actions become "meaningless" if the disobedient go without punishment. "I can't just say, 'Forget about it,'" he said as he handed down Marshall's suspended sentence.
In the UVA 17 portion of the trial, Casteen had barely taken the stand when Rosenfield objected to his portrayal of Living Wage discussions.
"I don't want this to turn into a forum for President Casteen," protested Rosenfield.
Downer, saying he'd had prior experience with others attempting to interject the Living Wage debate into his courtroom, sustained the objection. "I'm not going to allow this to become a forum on the Living Wage," he warned.
At nearly 2pm, shortly after chief operating officer Leonard Sandridge took the stand, the by-then-hungry attendees were about to be treated to the police videotape of his statement giving the students five minutes to leave or be arrested– except the court's DVD player didn't work.
Defense attorney Andre Hakes held up her laptop, and the public attempted to view the tiny dark screen. The audio– screams, yelps, crying– was all some observers could make out from the tape.
"Ow, that hurts," said a female voice, as the arrests began.
"Ow, ow, ow," came from a male voice.
"Stand up," ordered another male voice. "Get up. Don't resist, don't resist," directed another.
"The decision to arrest," Sandridge testified, "was made by police."
"You were annoyed and angry the students stayed," charged Rosenfield. "You wanted them arrested."
"Absolutely not," Sandridge protested.
Police Chief Mike Gibson reports to Sandridge, and Rosenfield asked why Sandridge did not intervene when Gibson "countermanded" Sandridge's instructions to the students after just two minutes.
"I do not intervene in police matters," said Sandridge.
Another– equally unviewable– videotape of the arrest was played, followed by the testimony of UVA police officers.
Vandalism charges against Mausert-Mooney were dropped because the videotape showed Sergeant Melissa Fielding kicking the sofa Mausert-Mooney was accused of damaging.
Chief Gibson testified that in his estimation, it was five minutes before he ordered the students out. He told the students they could sign a summons, but the defense countered that the students were never given the opportunity to do so.
According to Gibson, Detective David Roach had a folder with the summons inside.
"You told the magistrate they refused to sign the summons," said Rosenfield to Detective Roach.
"Absolutely," agreed Roach.
At 4:06pm, Downer dropped the charge of resisting arrest against ringleader Kevin Simowitz, who was heard asking on the tape, "What's a summons?"
Downer called the remaining university witnesses and police officers into the courtroom to hear his decision (Sandridge and Casteen apparently had already left). Members of the UVA 17 clasped hands.
The judge explained that though he found Marshall clearly guilty– she entered Madison Hall after being told not to– the students' cases and the university's handling of them were different.
"They could have told the students to leave and then arrested them," said Downer. "The choice was made– we're going to conduct a dialogue. That was an implicit invitation to remain."
That invitation was withdrawn when Sandridge told the students no charges would be filed if they left in five minutes, reasoned Downer, who said he had timed the first arrest at four minutes later.
While sympathizing with Chief Gibson– and noting that he didn't check common sense at the door as far as whether the students actually would have left– Downer called the timing of the arrests "unfortunate" for the university.
"I'm not going to convict someone when they're given five minutes to go, and arrests start before that," said Downer.
He cautioned the exultant students to refrain from an outburst, and at approximately 4:20pm they filed outdoors to conduct their celebratory chant: "What do we want?– A living wage! When do we want it?–- Now!"
Marshall says she plans to appeal. Those acquitted are Sean Butterfield, Shawn Casey, Carmen Comsti, Seth Croft, Lauren Cruickshank, Teresa Daniels, Zack Fields, Lauren Jones, Sam Kroiz, Andrew Mausert-Mooney, Nina Camille Robbins, Hannah Rubenstein, John Salidis, Katrina Salmons, Kevin Simowitz, Jillian Villars, and Khalial Withen.
Though the students got off, one courtroom observer reasoned at the end of the lengthy proceeding, "They did their time sitting in here."
The UVA 17 plus attorneys Steve Rosenfield and Andre Hakes, before their day in court.
PHOTO BY LISA PROVENCE