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 V.16 No.37 | September 13 - 19, 2007 

Neverending Stories

Climb the Stairway to Heaven, Ride the Elevator to Jail

Six peaceful anti-war protesters are convicted on federal charges, facing jail time and fines

Jeremy Eaton

Six Catholic peace activists were tried and convicted on federal charges last Thursday, following their assembly in the lobby elevator of the Joseph M. Montoya Federal Building in Santa Fe last fall [Re: Newscity, "Red Alert!" Jan. 25-31]. The activists, with three others, are known as the “Elevator Nine,” and now face up to 30 days in jail and a $5,000 fine for their nonviolent, anti-war demonstration.

The convicted, all of whom are affiliated with the national Catholic peace movement Pax Christi, include a retired high school teacher, a retired librarian, a bookkeeper and a churchgoing grandmother.

Led by Father John Dear, a Jesuit priest and prominent peace activist, the nine assembled in the elevator after they were refused admission to Sen. Pete Domenici’s office on Sept. 26, 2006. The activists had intended to present Domenici with a “Declaration of Peace,” a document that demands the “safe and rapid withdrawal of all U.S. troops and coalition forces from Iraq, with no future deployments.”

Defendants said several of the Nine had written the senator to inform him of their upcoming visit, though Domenici’s office manager, Margaret Murphy, said she was unaware of the Nine’s plans prior to their arrival at the Federal Building.

Murphy testified that the reception area of Domenici’s office, on the third floor of the building, was too small to accommodate all nine of the activists and that only three were welcome to come up. The demeanor of the group members, and their aggressive inquires, Murphy said, led her to surmise that the Nine might engage in civil disobedience and disturb work in the office. Murphy maintained, however, that the Nine had been thoroughly peaceful and said their demonstration was incomparable to anti-war protests that had disrupted the office in the past.

On the stand, Murphy recalled that she had offered to meet with the Nine in the lobby and send the Declaration to Sen. Domenici, who was in Washington, D.C. at the time. The Nine, she said, refused these options.

Murphy also testified that the Nine had walked “briskly” to the elevator, with an air of determination and purpose, to stage their impromptu protest. When questioned, she affirmed that defendant Philip Balcombe, who has polio and uses crutches to walk, was included in her description.

The elevator was stopped by a security officer who thrust his foot in the door to prevent it from closing. Later, security ordered the power cut from all elevators in the building.

The Nine remained in the elevator for approximately six hours, reading the names of Iraqi civilians and American soldiers killed since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In those six hours, Santa Fe police officers and sheriff’s deputies, a SWAT team, 21 FBI agents and the Department of Homeland Security were called to the scene. The defendants testified that none of these officials ordered them to leave the premises. One officer fetched a chair for Balcombe.

At the close of the business day, Sgt. Abel Paniagua of the federal Protective Service offered the Nine an ultimatum: Accept a citation and fine of $75 each and willingly leave the building or be arrested on the spot for trespassing. Each of The Elevator Nine accepted a citation and cooperated with orders to vacate the building. The six defendants chose to stand trial instead of pay the fine.

Peace activists crowded the small, Albuquerque courtroom for the trial on Thursday and were a presence outside of the courthouse as well, wielding signs and banners to promote peace. Supporters of the Nine expressed shock and dismay when the defendants were found guilty of petty misdemeanor for failure to comply with “posted signs and directions,” despite testimony by all defendants that they had not noticed the small signage, nor been informed of it by security personnel. Officer Salvador Salas, one of the police officers on duty during the incident, corroborated this claim in his testimony.

Attorneys Penni Adrian and Todd Hotchkiss defended the activists and said they may consider an appeal, with the consent of their clients. Defending attorneys subpoenaed Domenici but were rebuffed by U.S. Magistrate Don Svet, who presided over the trial. Svet ruled that the senator, as a prestigious government official, is protected from such subpoenas.

Two of the nine activists, Jan Lustig and Bruno Keller, accepted Alford pleas. In this plea, the defendant doesn’t admit the act and asserts innocence, but acknowledges that sufficient evidence exists for a conviction. Both were ordered to pay $25 in court processing fees. Charges against Jordan McKittrick, who was 15 on the day he was cited, were dropped because he is a minor.

Svet, a Reagan-appointed judge with a notably conservative record, ruled that the Nine had “unreasonably” obstructed the elevator and disturbed business in the Federal Building. Though he said the activists, all constituents of Domenici, had the right to speak with the senator regarding his stance on the war, Svet said he didn’t doubt that the activists intended to do more than deliver the declaration. Svet summoned Dear’s history of peaceful protest as evidence that the group intended to ruffle feathers. The other defendants, in addition to Dear and Balcombe, are Sansi Coonan, Michelle Marusa, Eleanore Vouselas and Martin “Bud” Ryan. Sentencing is expected within the next 30 days.

 
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