Spectators entered the courtroom, greeted one another and chatted animatedly while they waited for the jury. Some hugged the plaintiffs, the 11 demonstrators who had been among hundreds in Albuquerque on March 20, 2003, to protest the war in Iraq. Seven years later in District Court, after two weeks of testimony, the verdict was due. The news vans were parked outside. Would the jury find that the Albuquerque Police Department stepped over the line that night by donning riot gear, launching tear gas grenades, and shooting pepper-ball guns and beanbag rifles?
Each of the 11 protesters had filed different charges relating to their experiences [Newscity, “Whose Streets?” March 4-10]. Their attorneys had shown video and photos. They'd also brought in an expert witness, a retired LAPD deputy chief who'd handled large gatherings during the ’60s civil rights movement and Vietnam. He'd testified that the demonstration in Albuquerque on March 20 was peaceful, and that there was generally no reason to gas a peaceful crowd.
"Am I completely surprised? No. It's a hard thing to take on a police department. People want to believe in the police."
Plaintiff Brian Haney
The defense painted a picture of protesters advancing on police, the crowd spurred into unusually aggressive behavior by a handful of committed anarchists who wanted only to create chaos.
On Monday, March 8, the jury entered the courtroom after about three hours of deliberation. The charges from each plaintiff were read one by one, followed by the verdict. In the case of Lynn Buck, did the defendants violate her First Amendment right to freedom of expression and assembly? No, ruled the jury. And no, it decided unanimously, police had not used excessive force or committed battery. The minutes ticked by, and the judge read on. None of the charges stuck. Onlookers, sighing, grew tense and grave. One woman whispered "No!" in disbelief as it became evident the city and APD would face no penalty. The court adjourned.
“If you view the First Amendment as a license to do what you want, you will quickly find out that you will lose that liberty.”
Attorney for APD, Luis Robles
Brian Haney hugged a tearful fellow plaintiff, Lisa Kisner, and said, "No matter what, we did the right thing."
The result was disappointing, he told the Alibi. "Am I completely surprised? No. It's a hard thing to take on a police department. People want to believe in the police."
He had hope, he said, when he sat down to hear the verdict Monday afternoon. "Our attorneys put up the best possible fight we could have put up.” He added that he didn't know if APD took anything from the verdict. "I hope the seven years of waiting has been as difficult for the police as it was for us and that they'll think twice about ever doing that again."
Plaintiff Alma Rosa Silva-Banuelos said Monday was a sad day for the Constitution, and that the First Amendment has been disrespected. "APD can call any gathering unlawful and use excessive force." The verdict shows that there is no accountability for Albuquerque police, she said.
“Protests are an important thread in the fabric which makes our country,” defense attorney Luis Robles said in an interview the day after the trial, “but there has to be reasonable time, place and manner limitations on how they are done.”
Freedom of speech is precious, Robles said, but it’s also very delicate. “If you view the First Amendment as a license to do what you want, you will quickly find out that you will lose that liberty.” He said he doesn’t know if these conflicts are avoidable. “History propels these two groups into a collision that often doesn’t have an outcome that’s good for either one of them.”
There was no decision as of press time regarding an appeal, according to Micah McCoy, spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. He said the ACLU has no further cases spawned by the March 2003 protest.