Reflections on the trial and Not Guilty verdict on June 14, 2018 in Ramsey County Court, Minnesota, for the trial of Roger Cuthbertson and Mollie Wetherall who were arrested for protesting the killing of Philando Castile by police officer Jeronimo Yanez.
By Roger Cuthbertson August 17, 2018
Here are some inside stories and insights regarding the trial. For a general account of how the trial went, please see the thorough account based upon the trial notes of Jo Schubert, and nicely written up by Sue Ann Martinson in Rise Up Times.
NOTE: As we were preparing to publish these reflections on our trial, news broke on August 1, 2018 that the City of St. Paul has dismissed charges facing 17 protesters who were arrested near the Minnesota Governor’s Mansion in St. Paul in July 2016. We understand the news to mean that all of the remaining charges against all of the remaining defendants from the governor’s mansion arrests of July 2016 have been dropped. City Attorney, Lindsey Olson, made the announcement.
As reported by the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Lindsey Olson stated, “We reviewed these cases with fairness and adherence to the applicable laws. In light of the evidence, we have determined that further pursuit of these charges is not in our city’s best interest.”
According to the Pioneer Press, 73 protesters were arrested July 26 and 27, 2016; 49 accepted plea deals. The rest chose to go to trial. Of these, seven have completed their trials. The rest will not have to go to trial, after all. We are very much encouraged by this news. There is no bringing back the life of Philando Castile, but this is a step forward for peace, justice, racial equality, and first amendment rights. Thanks Lindsey Olson and City of St. Paul for making the right decision. —Roger Cuthbertson
Reflections on the Trial
One very remarkable moment happened during a recess of the trial when discussions were being made about rules for the proceedings by the attorneys: Laura Pietan for the prosecution, Andrew Hodney for Mollie, and Elizabeth Hogan for Roger. In a complete surprise to me, the capable Elizabeth Hogan held up a very large book with a green cover and began to cite regarding legal evidence from the opened book. She mentioned the case of State of Minnesota v. Martin, et al, to claim that the defendants have a right to testify, at least to some degree, as to their reasons or motives for protesting.
The prosecutor pushed back somewhat, but eventually agreed, along with Judge Awsumb, to allow our rights to say why we were protesting. This was very important. In many cases I observed over the years defendants in civil disobedience or protest cases were nearly always cut off mid-sentence if they tried to say anything other than Yes or No to such questions as, Did you refuse the officer’s order to disperse? Editor’s note: Or in any way attempted to explain their motivations for their actions.
I remember being in this situation a couple of times in previous trials. This was a big break for us. Not only would we have the educational opportunity to explain why we were protesting, but there was a chance that the jurors might take our beliefs and motives into consideration in determining guilt or innocence, although this could be contrary to the intent of the law, and the judge’s instructions, and could possibly be an example of jury nullification, the power of jury to find a defendant not guilty regardless of the law.
While I don’t want to get into a full discussion of the matter, I think, in some instances jury nullification might be a good thing, as in a circumstance where a law that has been broken is too narrow or specific, or is contradicted by a higher law, or where the law does not properly reflect some higher ethics or extenuating circumstances.
During the trial, I was amazed to realize that the defendants in the case that gave rise to the citations from the “green book” referred to above, are long time friends of ours. Small world! The three, Sarah Martin, Sue Ann Martinson, and Lucia Wilkes Smith, joined in a dramatic antiwar protest some years ago when they tried to enlist at a local army recruitment office. As women of grandmother age, they said that they wanted to enlist and go to Afghanistan to take the place of young servicemen, who could then come home to their families.
The recruiters said they would not let the women sign the enlistment forms, even though they couldn’t prove the women over the maximum age for enlistment, because the women would not show identification. The women insisted they would not leave until they completed enlistment papers. The recruiters insisted that the women leave.
Three of the women did not leave. They were ticketed and released. In the ensuing court case, Sarah, Sue Ann and Lucia defended themselves in court. During this original court case in Hennepin County the three were not allowed to say anything about what they were trying to accomplish, what there motivations were, even as unusual as the situation was. The three lost their case and were fined and given a sentence to serve. Then, with the help of attorney Bob Kolstad and law intern John Kvinge, the three, calling themselves “Appealing Women,” appealed their case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. They lost this case as well, but their arguments were carried forward via the “green book” to help enable Molly and I testify as to our motives for protesting as we did.
In another recent victory in Hennepin County a jury found Mike Madden Not Guilty of all charges brought by the Metropolitan Airport Commission when he was arrested for carrying a sign that said Muslims Welcome. He was allowed to testify as to motive. The case of State of Minnesota v. Brechon—held in Hennepin County in 1984 and appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court ―provides an important ruling in regard to testifying as to motive. Protesters from the Honeywell Project who had demonstrated at Honeywell Corporation headquarters in Minneapolis won the right to state their reasons for protest. (Honeywell is a major manufacturer of weapons of mass destruction and have since moved their headquarters out of the state).
These bits of fractured history are examples to me of the fact that what we accomplish is the result of not just what one or two persons do but rather the result of community action through time. Thanks, friends.
Getting back to Mollie’s and my trial, the jury was quite amazing. The judge’s questioning and free-wheeling conversation that happened during jury interview and selection was like a college seminar in discussing what fair and open mindedness should be in a trial where nearly all of the potential jurors had previous knowledge about the shooting of Philando Castile.
At one point a potential juror seemed either to be resting her eyes or having trouble keeping her eyes open. She was selected for the jury, anyway, without objection by the prosecutor. Later she had a coughing spell. The judge had a conversation with her that brought out the fact that she wasn’t feeling well. The judge offered her water and invited her to interrupt any time if she needed something.
After the jury selection process was nearly over, but before the start of the trial, one juror offered the information that he could not read or write and had been previously disqualified from jury service for that reason. There followed an extensive discussion, leading to the agreement by judge and attorneys for both sides that since this man wanted to be on the jury, and had good cognitive understanding, there was no reason for him to not be on the jury.
The point was made that a jury should reflect the entire community, and some people in the community cannot read or write. It was reasoned that there were not that many documents to pour through, and that these could be read out loud in the jury deliberating room.
This man, too, was agreed to as a juror by all parties to the discussion. The prosecutor was fairly even handed. The judge was considerate. The final jury appeared to be made up of two Blacks, two Asians, one Native American, and one White. This diversity on the jury was probably important in a case where the defendants were protesting the killing of a black motorist by police.
After the trial and not guilty verdict, there were several people hanging around the elevator lobby who were talking about the trial. Some of us were in a celebratory mood. So I said, “We are celebrating! If anyone wants to join us for lunch somewhere nearby, the lunch is on me.”
Several of our friends took us up on the offer as well as three of the jurors! Incredible! So we spent a couple of hours at the Grey Duck Restaurant across from the courthouse exchanging views. One juror offered the opinion that he didn’t think there could be a jury in all of St. Paul that would find a guilty verdict in this case. That same juror also offered the opinion that it was not very effective for the state to claim unlawful assembly and public nuisance without presenting witnesses from the neighborhood to testify as to just what the disturbances were for them.
The juror who had been a concern because of her health said that in order to arrive at a consensus she made sure that the judge’s instructions were read and discussed, line by line. She was proud of this action and retold this narrative so that more at the lunch gathering could hear her. So, it would seem she was very much on the ball, after all. The juror who could not read or write told us that when the jury took its first poll, guilty or not guilty, his was the first hand that went up for the verdict of not guilty. This same juror said he had to borrow money to pay for the lightrail transportation to and from the court house each day. It is hard to find civic duty practiced more responsibly than that. He was so proud to have served on the jury!
Another story has to be mentioned here. It is the story of community action, community resistance, and community support. Thanks to the many friends and concerned observers who took time from their busy lives to witness what was going on in court. Without that presence, things might not have turned out as well as they did. It didn’t matter that few if any observers could be there for the entire trial. There were always observers present to maintain accountability.
When I showed up in court for my first court appearance, expecting to be on my own, I was surprised that the courtroom was filled with other arrestees from the Castile protests. An informal collective response was already underway that was very helpful to me. A woman by the name of Nicole Harrison and her arrestee daughter, Maddy, were key figures in this organizational effort, which included strategy sessions and communication systems. Nicole took it upon herself to find legal help, free for the most part, for the many defendants who wanted it.
This was a huge, selfless effort that, as far as I know was completely successful. It was Nicole who connected me with Elizabeth Hogan, who spent hours and hours of her time representing me in court. Elizabeth was brilliant and wonderous. Elizabeth would not take a dime of my money. She said it would not be ethical for her to do so. I am just awed to think of how so many people rose up as one to fight the injustice that they witnessed in the shooting death of Philando Castile. I feel like shouting one more time, “The people united will never be defeated.”
Since I am old and retired, I was privileged to be able to fight this case out to the end, putting up with the countless delays and procedural pretrial court appearances. Many of the people who were arrested were working young people. They would have liked to have taken their cases to trial, but just couldn’t afford to miss that much time from work. Two people who were supposed to be co-defendants with Mollie and me had to drop out at the last minute.
One of these, Brian Allen, dropped out on the day our trial was to begin. He was practically in tears, as he told me he wanted to stay with us in court, but just couldn’t go forward at that present time because he had other pressing needs to deal with. He wished me well before he left. Of course, we felt bad for him. At the time I thought that he probably couldn’t take more time off from work or. That is the sort of thing that happens to a lot of defendants, when fighting it out to prove your innocence usually takes repeated appearances in court over a long period of time.
In Brian’s case, I have since learned that he had to deal with the death of a close friend, Jeffrey Ayer. Jeffrey and Brian had protested together at the Governor’s Mansion. They also took some youth from the Governor’s Mansion protest to Washington, DC to protest at the Trump inauguration. Brian had to pay respects to his friend. Our not guilty verdict is for you too, Brian, and for your friend, Jeffrey who has passed, and for all of the other defendants who had to take a plea, even though they would have liked to have continued.
And this not guilty plea has to be dedicated to Philando Castile, who should be alive, and to Philando’s strong mother, Valorie, who has worked tirelessly to try to change the world so other moms will not lose their beautiful children to the racial fear and institutional racism that permeates our society.
Police wrongdoing is what I was protesting. It didn’t matter to me at the time if I was arrested or even jailed.
When I got arrested, two years ago, my frame of mind was that I was going to say no to Philando Castile’s killing and to the countless other killings like it across the nation. And I was going to demand accountability for police malpractice and murder. My sign said, POLICE THE POLICE! My feeling was, if the police can’t or won’t police their own actions, then the community would have to police the police. I was not going to stop protesting just because the police told me to stop. Police wrongdoing is what I was protesting. It didn’t matter to me at the time if I was arrested or even jailed.
I didn’t think of being found not guilty. I knew I had done nothing wrong, no matter what the police said or the laws said that they cited. I just wanted to continue to say no to the institutional racism and violence that permeates our law enforcement culture.
A not guilty verdict was not what I was primarily working for, but it is worth celebrating, because it is advancement for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances as guaranteed by the Constitution. One week after our verdict there was another court case for three young defendants who were arrested near the Governor’s Mansion. Naomi Kleonski, Remi Corso, and Peyton William were on trial for their peaceful protest, with the same judge and prosecutor presiding, at the same courthouse. After the prosecution had presented two or more police witnesses, and before another police witness was to be called, and after a recess, Judge Awsumb suddenly dismissed the case.
I wasn’t there at the time, but my sources tell me that the judge stated that the prosecution just didn’t have a case based upon what had unfolded and that proceeding would be waste of valuable court time. The judge also noted that a police witness who had been scheduled to appear had not shown up for the trial.
Another reason to celebrate is that one week before our verdict, Mike Madden was found not guilty in Hennepin County for holding a sign at the airport that said, MUSLIMS WELCOME! as previously noted. There is a lot of bad news these days. It is quite scary. But we celebrate these times when true justice prevails, because they do matter. Maybe partially because of these results the authorities might consider correcting their behavior and policies instead of cracking down on peaceful dissent, next time around.
I definitely think the charges against all of the rest of the Philando Castile shooting protesters who are still awaiting trial should be dropped by the City Attorney or whomever has the responsibility for such action. What a waste to continue with these. Hopefully the entire system including police, is changing towards greater respect and humanity that will provide equal justice for all.
July 31, 2018
Editor’s Note: As noted in the beginning of this article, the remaining activists up for trial for protesting the killing of Philando Castile by police officer Jeronimo Yanez had their charges dismissed.
Police in Minnesota and Louisiana have their own “bill of rights” that can shield officers from accountability for fatal shootings.
State v. Martin_ 2010 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 923 (Unpublished Opinion)
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Sue Ann Martinson, Editor, Rise Up Times