Published on Sunday, September 24, 2000 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
GOP Convention Protesters Reject Fine, Seek Trials
by Linda K. Harris
In a spirited display of solidarity yesterday in Municipal Court, 54 protesters arrested during the Republican National Convention refused the district attorney's offer of probation, a fine, and a clean record - and opted instead to go to trial.
Before accepting his trial date, John Harris, 32, a high school history teacher from Los Angeles, read a page-long group statement to the court, presided over by Trial Commissioner Charles J. Abbonizio.
"The vast majority of RNC defendants . . . demand our rights to a full trial because good-faith negotiations have not been made for the reduction of charges of all RNC accused felons and high-level misdemeanors," Harris read.
"Over 70 people were arrested in a warehouse for being in the vicinity of puppets and banners that never saw the light of day," he said.
When he finished, the filled courtroom erupted in applause, cheers and whistles, which the bailiff quickly quieted.
As their names were called, many protesters repeated parts of the statement as their fellow defendants responded with fists raised overhead.
"Friday night we began to draft the statement," Harris said. "We debated the statement at a meeting this morning before court and made some changes to it."
The district attorney's offer, known as accelerated rehabilitative disposition, allows defendants to pay a $300 fine at the end of six months of successful probation. No legal record is maintained.
Yesterday, 39 people accepted the offer. Either side can change positions before signing the papers during future court dates.
Last week, during the first of three Saturday sessions set aside for status hearings on the protester cases, two people chose trial, five accepted the probation, and 96 continued their cases until Saturday, the last of the special court dates. About 200 people are expected in court that day. Protesters predict many will also opt for trial then.
Among others who chose to go to trial yesterday was Matthew Hart, 28, of Grays Ferry. Hart, a puppeteer and founder of the Spiral Q art studio at 1307 Sansom St., was arrested in the warehouse at 4100 Haverford Ave., the so-called puppet warehouse, along with 75 other people. He was charged with nine misdemeanors.
"I chose to go to trial because I'm totally innocent, and puppetry is not a crime," Hart said.
Assistant District Attorney Charles Ehrlich said prosecutors were ready to take on the additional burdens that the protesters' decisions will impose.
"If they want trials, they'll have trials. We're ready to go," Ehrlich said.
Shawn Nolan of the public defender's office is handling many of the protesters' cases. He said he would file for additional discovery information before the trials.
"With the puppet cases, we think we're entitled to the identities of the infiltrators - who were apparently state police - any reports they generated, and any surveillance that they did," Nolan said.
Lawrence Krasner, attorney for Matthew Hart, said "there are going to be a lot of motions for a lot more discovery."
Abbonizio said the deadline for all motions was Oct. 6. Trials are scheduled to begin in late October.
In other protester hearings, Assistant District Attorney David E. Disiderio revealed Thursday that the FBI had surveillance tapes that he hoped to use in the case of Kate Sorensen, originally held on $1 million bail.
In asking the judge to continue Sorensen's case until Oct. 12, Disiderio said he had seen one tape from the FBI.
"It's nothing I could use," he said later, adding that another was expected in the next two weeks.
Krasner, who is also representing Sorensen, said, "this is a war on dissent."
Copyright 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc