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Des Moines Jury Finds Protesters Not Guilty

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September/October 2007, pages 49-50

By Michael Gillespie

IN A DRAMATIC ending to a three-day trial, a jury unanimously found five Iowa peace activists “not guilty” of charges of trespassing at the Des Moines office of Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley in February. Acquitted in the July 11 verdict were Des Moines peace activist Elton Davis, Iowa Methodist Federation for Social Action member Chester Guinn, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Iowa Program Coordinator Kathleen McQuillen, Catholic Peace Ministry executive director Brian Terrell, and Catholic Just Faith member Dixie Webb.

Even before the verdict was returned the case had attracted national attention, in part because the five defendants admitted that they had, in fact, refused an order by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security inspector to leave Grassley’s office. The anti-war protesters argued that they had a First Amendment right to have their grievance heard by their senator—a right denied them by Senator Grassley and his staff.

The protest (see December 2006 Washington Report, pp. 62-63) was carried out in conjunction with The Occupation Project, a sustained campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience planned to focus attention on widespread public sentiment against the Iraq war. Among those testifying for the defense was Jeff Leys, co-director of Voices for Creative Non-Violence and Occupation Project organizer.

After members of Senator Grassley’s office staff refused to make eye contact with the activists and ignored their presence in the office, the Iowa activists reverently read aloud from lists of names of American servicemen and servicewomen and of Iraqis killed in the war.

“We brought a grievance,” said Terrell. “We brought a list of names. Each name is a grievance.”

A Grassley staffer proceeded to call a Homeland Security officer to the senator’s office, and the officer interrupted the reading of the names of the dead. Des Moines Police Department officers were summoned to arrest the activists.

District Court Judge Odell McGee allowed Terrell to read the Amendment aloud to the court for the purpose of “judicial notice.”

Terrell read: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The jury’s not guilty verdict on grounds of constitutional justification strongly suggests that the jurors agreed that the protesters’ right to freedom of speech, to peaceably assemble, and to have their grievances heard by their elected representative had been abridged by their arrest.

Terrell and Davis represented themselves, while Guinn, McQuillen and Webb were represented by noted Des Moines civil and human rights attorney and National Lawyers Guild member Sally Frank, who teaches law at Drake Law School in Des Moines.

On the July 5 edition of National Public Radio’s “The Diane Rehm Show,” a scholar from the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute singled out Iowa as “a state that has perhaps the strongest anti-war movement in the country.”