Jury acquits Occupy protesters

INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
  • A Common Pleas Court jury Tuesday acquitted 12 Occupy Philadelphia demonstrators arrested in a 2011.
  • The protesters wanted to call attention to what they called Wells Fargo's "racist predatory lending" policies.
  • The defense argued that the sit-in was protected by the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee and served a "greater good" for society that outweighed the trespass charge.

A Common Pleas Court jury today acquitted 12 Occupy Philadelphia demonstrators arrested in a 2011 sit-in in a Wells Fargo Bank branch in Center City.

The jury of 10 women and two men deliberated a total of about 13 hours since Friday before it returned, shortly before noon, to announce the verdicts: not guilty of conspiracy and defiant trespass against each of the 12 protesters.

The 12 - one woman and 11 men - were arrested Nov. 18, 2011 when they staged a sit-in inside the Wells Fargo branch at 17th and Market Streets. The protesters said they wanted to call attention to what they called Wells Fargo's "racist predatory lending" policies that caused a disproportionately large number of home foreclosures in African American neighborhoods.

"If this jury has found us innocent then it must mean that Wells Fargo is guilty," said an elated 71-year-old Willard R. Johnson, one of the 12 on trial.

Last July, Wells Fargo, the nation's largest mortgage lender, agreed to pay $175 million to settle allegations by the U.S. Justice Department that independent brokers originating its loans charged higher fees and rates to minority borrowers than they did to white borrowers with similar credit risks.

The arrests occurred during a season of Occupy encampments and demonstrations in Center City but the Wells Fargo protest - a confrontation between free-speech and private property rights - was the first in which Occupy protesters were convicted of a crime.

Last June, Municipal Court President Judge Marsha H. Neifield found all guilty of the trespass charge and fined each $500 plus court costs.

Under Philadelphia court rules, people found guilty in Municipal Court have the right to a new trial in Common Pleas Court.

This time, Judge Nina N. Wright Padilla asked all 12 to approach so she could shake their hands.

"I hope you continue your work in a law-abiding way," said Padilla. "I must say you are the most affable group of defendants I've ever come across."

The current trial began Feb. 25 with seven lawyers representing the 12 free of charge. The defense argued that the sit-in was protected by the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee. They also contended the protest served a "greater good" for society that outweighed the trespass charge.

Assistant District Attorney Jim Stinsman argued in his closing to the jury that the Occupy protesters' First Amendment rights did not apply once they went inside the Wells Fargo Bank branch because they were then on private property, not a public sidewalk.

 


Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985, jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or @joeslobo on Twitter.

 

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