Five protesters who disrupted a Center City intersection the week of the Republican National Convention were found not guilty yesterday of obstructing the highway and other charges.
Municipal Court Judge Felice Stack acquitted Linda Panetta, 35, of Philadelphia, of all charges and reduced the charges against the four other defendants after the prosecution rested its case.
Later, after hearing defense testimony, Stack found the remaining defendants not guilty of obstructing the highway, saying that even though the protesters were sitting or lying in the street at 15th Street and JFK Boulevard on July 31, 2000, motorists on that Monday morning were able to drive around them.
Found not guilty were Allison Styan, 19, of Maryland; Rebecca Johnson, 22, of Maryland; Laurel Paget-Seekins, 21, of California; and William Brown, 32, of Philadelphia.
The defendants were protesting the School of the Americas, a U.S. facility in Georgia accused by the protesters of training Latin American military personnel on how to torture, kidnap and assassinate civilians.
Despite repeated objections by prosecutor Josh Van Naarden, Stack allowed Catholic Bishop Tom Gumbleton from Detroit to testify at length about allegations that the School of the Americas was linked to specific killings and massacres in Central America during the 1980s.
Before rendering her verdict, Stack said that she had never heard of the School of the Americas until yesterday and that what she learned was "very enlightening and somewhat shocking."
The protesters wanted the government to close the School of the Americas, which the protesters say was recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
A Web site for the institute says that it replaced the School of the Americas and that it promotes democratic values and respect for human rights. The institute did not respond to a request for comment.
Shawn Nolan, a lawyer for three of the defendants, called what the protesters did last year "democracy in action."
Nearly 400 people were arrested during the week of the convention. Most cases were dismissed, although a handful of protesters were convicted of misdemeanor charges. Some of the cases have led to lawsuits against the city for wrongful arrest.
Cathie Abookire, spokeswoman for the District Attorney's Office, was unable to say whether there are any other criminal cases pending.
Commenting on yesterday's trial, Abookire said prosecutors believed they had a strong case, including a police videotape showing the protesters getting arrested after they refused police commands to get back on the sidewalk.
"We disagree with the judge's decision," Abookire said.
The charges against the defendants had been thrown out by another Municipal Court judge, but they were later reinstated by a Common Pleas Court judge.
Copyright 2001 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc