22 clergy members found guilty of trespassing at state capitol
JEFFERSON CITY - A group of 22 clergy members received a split verdict from a Cole County jury Wednesday. The defendants were found guilty of trespassing but found innocent of obstructing Missouri Senate business.
More than two years ago, on May 6, 2014, a group of predominately black, peaceful protestors filled the Senate balcony and began chanting in support of Medicaid expansion.
Missouri is one of 19 states that decided not to expand Medicaid. Advocates for expansion are predominantly Democrats, including Governor Jay Nixon. The majority of the opposition is Republican.
Typically, cases like this are processed right away said supporters of the defendants. There exist a few theories as why it took two years to get this case to trial. One area of speculation is that it is because almost all of the defendants are black. Out of the 22 protestors involved in the trial Wednesday, 17 are black.
A packed courtroom
During the trial, Cole County Circuit Court's biggest room was filled with some 40 or more spectators. The court added extra seats to fill demand. Many wore solidarity ribbons in support of the defendants.
On Tuesday, not one of the police officers who arrested the protestors could individually identify them. On Wednesday, one officer returned for cross examination. She was shown a video of the protest in an effort to identify who she arrested.
The video showed a Missouri Senate gallery filled with standing protestors. When the police escorted the protestors out, the balcony was almost entirely empty.The Senate suspended its session following the chants and singing of the protestors after the arrest.
The jury had to deliver a separate verdict for each defendant. The jury instructions lasted for around an hour, which is unusually long, according to Cole County Court officials. The defendants faced charges of obstructing a government function and trespassing.
Defense attorney: Protestors didn't know they were arrested
Cole County Prosecutor Mark Richardson told the jurors they should find the defendants guilty for resisting trespass and obstructing government. He said the will of the few should not interfere with the many. "When laws break down, where do you go to get laws passed," Richardson said.
Jay Barnes, attorney for the defense, said Richardson's commentary was un-American. He argued there was no evidence of communication made to the protestors by Capitol Police before their arrest. "Most didn't even think they were arrested," Barnes said.
Reverend Emmett Baker, one of the defendants, is 72 years old. If found guilty, Baker could serve up to 6 months behind bars. He said he did not get the notification of the charges against him until three months after the incident.
Baker and the other clergy members argued against Senator Kurt Schaefer's stance on opting out of Medicaid expansion. However, Schaefer has defended their right to free speech according to Baker.
"Even Senator Schaefer, he too felt we had the right to protest," Baker said.
The jury still has yet to decide the verdict of one of the 23 arrested, Jesse Fisher, who was absent from the majority of the trial. The jury is set to consider that case tomorrow morning.
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