Thirteen demonstrators arrested for unfurling a banner on the U.S. Supreme Court steps in protest of the death penalty in January were found guilty on June 27 of violating a federal law barring such demonstrations.
During the one-day trial before District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Juliet McKenna, none of the defendants denied protesting and holding the 40-foot-long banner on the high court’s steps. Instead, they challenged the constitutionality of the law itself, arguing that a prohibition on demonstrations on the steps was a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech.
But as McKenna noted in her rulings from the bench, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court have repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of the law when faced with similar cases in the past. She denied the two motions the defendants made for acquittal, and found all thirteen defendants guilty. Their sentences ranged from a $100 fine to the maximum penalty of 60 days in jail for one 80-year-old defendant who declined a lesser sentence that included paying a fine.
The defendants participated in demonstrations at the court on Jan. 17 marking the 35th anniversary of the execution of Gary Gilmore, the first such execution after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Gilmore was executed by firing squad in Utah. A nearly identical demonstration was held five years ago, when one of the defendants this week, John Payden-Travers, was also arrested for protesting on the steps.
Fourteen people were arrested for holding a banner that read “STOP EXECUTIONS!” in large black letters. Officers with the Supreme Court police testified that the protesters were given three warnings and a chance to leave before they were arrested.
The defendants represented themselves with assistance from veteran First Amendment lawyer Mark Goldstone, whose practice is based in Bethesda, Md. McKenna commended the defendants for their ability to work together, each taking a piece of the case and making arguments on behalf of the group.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Douglas said in his closing statement that no important facts were in dispute. He said the defendants knew what they were doing was against the law and came with a plan to be arrested. He noted that most of the other protesters that day stayed on the sidewalk in compliance with the law.
Defendant Scott Langley delivered the group’s closing argument. He offered a critique of the death penalty and said that citizens should be allowed to bring grievances about these types of issues to the high court. “We believe we have the legal right, guaranteed by the First Amendment, to do what we did.” Langley and other defendants who presented the motions for acquittal mid-trial also argued that the government had failed to prove that the demonstrators were using the banner to “bring into public notice a party, organization, or movement,” an element of the U.S. Code section at issue.
McKenna said that while she had no doubt of the protesters’ commitment to their beliefs, that didn’t give them license to knowingly violate a law that’s been repeatedly upheld by different courts. She said that the banner did identify a movement in violation of the law.
The other defendants were Anna Shockley, Ronald Kaz, Rachel Lawler, Amber Mason, Kevin Mason, Jonathan Dunn, Randy Gardner, Daniel Flynn, Anne Feczko, Charity Lee and Eve Tetaz.
Tetaz initially was sentenced to probation, a stay-away order and a fine, but after she objected to paying the fine, she was sentenced to jail time.
Flynn, Dunn, Bennett and Feczko received time served and a $100 fine; Gardner, Lawler, Langley, Kaz and Shockley received one year of probation, a $100 fine, 50 hours of community service, a stay-away order and a five-day suspended sentence; the Masons declined a sentence of time served and a $100 fine, so they will serve five days in jail; and Payden-Travers declined a sentence of one year of probation, a stay-away order, 50 hours of community service, a fine and a five-day suspended sentence, so he will also serve five days in jail.
All of the defendants were ordered to pay $50 to the crime victims’ compensation fund.
Contact Zoe Tillman at email@example.com.