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Monday, October 01, 2007

Ohio Anti-War Protesters Appeal Closed Trial: Contend Public Was Illegally Barred

CINCINNATI (TDB) -- Four anti-war protesters convicted of trespassing after a peaceful sit-in at Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot's Cincinnati office say a judge deliberately violated their right to a public trial. Defense lawyers filed a legal brief with Ohio's 1st District Court of Appeals that contends Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge David Stockdale refused to let spectators into his courtroom during jury selection.

The Daily Bellwether has some first hand knowledge about the closed courtroom earlier this year. It tried to enter and watch some of the proceedings, but was turned away by a courthouse employee who said there were no seats for the public. The worker stood and physically blocked the courtroom entrance, politely waved The Bellwether away, then closed the door tight. The appeals brief filed by the defense lawyers said they were aware of such events, and noted that they suggested to Judge Stockdale he take steps to accomodate the public.

"Members of the public attempted to enter the courtroom during voir dire. The trial court refused them entry. Appellants objected to the exclusion of the public under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, Section 10 of the Ohio Constitution and suggested the trial be moved to an available and larger courtroom.

"The trial court explained its decision to exclude all members of the public from the trial 'because the State Fire Marshal has put a limit on the number of people that can be in this room, and with all of the prospective jurors, we are already over that number, and I am not going to stretch it any further.' Appellants again requested the trial be moved to the available spaces in the courthouse which could accommodate a larger audience. The trial court refused.

"On this record it cannot be said that even if the exclusion of the public was necessary to protect an overriding interest such as occupancy limits, that there were no viable alternatives to the exclusion or the order was narrow enough to protect an overriding interest. There were a number of larger courtrooms available for the trial court's use. The trial court failed to consider available alternatives [or] narrowly tailor the closure order to make the requisite findings. Appellants were denied their constitutional right to a public trial."

The four protesters appealing are Gregory Flannery, Sister Mary Jegen, Barabara Wolf and Ellen Dienger. The went to Chabot's office in September 2006 asking him to sign the "Declaration of Peace," which called for an end of the Iraq War. The legal brief, which was drafted by a team of volunteer defense lawyers comprised of Bill Gallagher, Sarah E. Moorhouse and Scott Ryan Nazzarine, said the protesters merely hoped to meet with the Cincinnati congressman who supports the war:

"They had tried for months to garner a response from Chabot. They voted, wrote letters, made phone calls, e-mailed, held prayer vigils, hung banners, fasted and attended peace rallies. But it was never enough. Every day their efforts failed and the casualties of war mounted."

The appeals court has not scheduled a hearing on the case. City prosecutors still must file their own brief in support of the convictions. The protesters were found guilty by a jury on March 13, 2007. They were sentenced to a day in jail, six months of probation and 20 hours of community service. Before the trial took place, Judge Stockdale rejected their efforts to subpoena Chabot and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as witnesses.

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