Attorney Ben Scales & Citizen Journalist Lisa Landis leave courtroom victoriously by Clare Hanrahan
"It was a half a cigarette verdict," Lisa Landis joked, with
a wide grin and obvious relief outside the Buncombe County Courthouse in
Asheville, North Carolina.
Landis had earlier been called back to the courtroom less than fifteen minutes after the jury left to deliberate her case. She was on trial for impeding traffic, a misdemeanor with potential for 20 days jail time. Landis maintained her innocence and contends she was targeted for prosecution because she is a critic of Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore, and was well known as a public media producer on the free-speech forum UR-TV."I've never seen a not guilty that fast," said defense attorney Ben Scales. Even the court bailiff was pleased, winking at Landis as she left the courtroom and telling Scales, "I'm glad people are standing up for what they believe in." Jury members in the elevator and leaving the courthouse were also in high spirits and glad to get out into the cool, bright mountain day. "I've still got time to go fishing," one said.
Landis, a 53 year old homeless grandmother, is "homefree" as she calls her current circumstance. She hitched rides eight times from Florida to Asheville and back to make her numerous court appearances. "Flying a sign" is how she characterized her travel. "If I didn't have faith, I couldn't make it," she said of the ordeal. "I was falsely arrested."
It was a heartening two-day trial despite a surprising lack of supportive presence from among Asheville's Occupy movement and the more than 150 persons who occupied the streets during the Nov. 2 march and rally for which Lisa faced charges. In addition to court officials and attorneys, only three others were present for the trial.
Landis appealed an April 26, 2012, conviction in the Buncombe County District Court. She had been filming a march and rally on November 2, 2012, in which Occupy Asheville participants took to the streets in solidarity with Occupy Oakland's Scott Olsen, a two-time Iraq war veteran seriously wounded by a police projectile during an Oakland street demonstration.
Landis, a former producer with the now-dismantled community television station UR-TV had been picked up three days after the Nov. 2 rally on three warrants, charged with Resist, Delay and Obstruct, Impeding the Flow of Traffic and Unlawful Assembly. Prosecutors dropped two of the charges prior to trial. Police testimony in her earlier trial revealed that downtown officers were ordered by supervisors to review surveillance video and pick out individuals they knew. Eleven persons, including this writer serving as a National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer at the time, were selected for prosecution based on police surveillance video and arrested on warrants.
A humorous moment occurred the first day of trial when Asheville's familiar flying nun, who accompanies the La Zoom tourist bus, was called for jury duty. During the jury interview process, he quipped "I might have a problem because I regularly impede traffic." (S)he was dismissed from jury duty. Another in the pool, a professed anti-war activist, remained on the jury as did a student videographer. "I looked at the jury and I knew I had at least one," the defense attorney said later. The final jury consisted of four women, and eight men, who appeared to range from their mid 20s to mid 50s in age.
Defense Attorney Ben Scales, in what he later revealed was his first ever solo jury trial, has appeared in court numerous times in the past few months to offer pro-bono defense for Occupy Asheville participants. He characterized his clients as "the real heroes," but he articulately championed Landis' case and his closing arguments clearly moved the jury to return the just verdict of not guilty. It was an important victory for civil liberties and the freedom of citizen journalists to cover public dissent without fear of prosecution.
This writer was not present during the first day of trial where, according to Scales, Asheville police sergeant Brown testified that he ordered the streets blocked by police cars "in the interest of public safety," as the Nov. 2 marchers moved through the streets. Police surveillance video and video by citizen journalist Landis was introduced as evidence, and Occupy Asheville chants, including "Give the police a raise!" once again rang through the courtroom.
On the first day of Landis' trial, former UR-TV producer Larry Grillo, who arrived at the Buncombe County courthouse at 8:30 a.m. to support Landis was misdirected to the wrong courtroom, then misdirected again to a jury room where he was held until 11:30 a.m. "I was trying to get to her trial, but I was pushed into a jury room," he said. I thought the trial was on the fifth floor, but they told me "There's nothing going on down there." He returned for the final day to witness Landis' victory in court.
Asheville Legal Observer Sunny Rawls attended both days, observing from a front pew in the ornate Courtroom No. 5. All but two of the 18 mahogany pews in the magnificent courtroom were vacant. Tall windows draped with deep green velvet curtains trimmed in gold braid with gold tasseled tiebacks let in the morning light and fluted flat columns gave the walls a stately feel, hung with oil portraits of judges who presided in years past. The ornate ceiling was decorated elaborately and a wide balcony in the rear could accommodate another fifty observers had they realized the first amendment import of this case.
Judge Gary Gavenus presided from a mahogany dais with a large round seal of North Carolina behind him. His courtroom was a model of due process and his interactions with the prosecution and defense attorneys and his instructions to the jury were detailed and informative, a fine civics lesson for those of us who seldom find ourselves before a judge.
Assistant District Attorney Steen prosecuted the case, calling the charges against Landis "a simple, straightforward case," and asked the jury to convict her on the charge of impeding traffic. "She stood in the street," he charged. "Traffic could not flow because of her actions."
Defense Attorney Scales, in his closing argument, emphasized the "willful" element of the charge. "Impeding of traffic must be willful," he said, citing a case law that he said he had discovered at 6:30 a.m. the day of the trial. "The Defendant must intend to impede traffic".If you find that she did not willfully impede traffic, you must find her not guilty."
"Lisa Landis did not want to get arrested. She did not participate in civil disobedience. She was trying to observe the expression of free speech engaged in by the marchers. "Ms. Landis is a citizen journalist, sympathetic to the movement. She was totally caught off guard when she was arrested. Not at the event, but days later. If we allow our police to do that, when are they coming after the rest of us?"