The two Yale students involved in last October’s Hartford protest that generated 18 arrests struck a deal to avoid criminal prosecution, an attorney and fellow demonstrators said. But other protesters are planning to continue their fight in court, seeking to clear their names of what they say are unjust charges.
Jon Scolnik ’03 and Abhimanyu Sud ’03 — members of the so-called “Hartford 18” — each received sentences of accelerated rehabilitation last spring, which will allow the pair to perform community service and avoid a potential felony conviction. Sud’s lawyer, Norman Pattis, said his client’s accelerated rehabilitation term will end in January 2003. Scolnik and his attorney Hubert Santos did not return repeated phone messages, and Sud declined to comment.
Prosecutors charged Scolnik with inciting to riot and interfering with an officer, and Sud with inciting to riot and disorderly conduct. If convicted, each would have faced as many as 10 years in prison.
While 13 additional protesters accepted similar plea agreements to avoid criminal proceedings, three chose to stick together and roll the dice with a trial.
Danbury grass-roots organizer Dave Bonan, 25; Wesleyan University sophomore Max Greene, 19; and northwest Connecticut activist Jason Cappella, 23, face felony charges ranging from interfering with an officer to inciting to riot. They decided that accepting a plea bargain — Bonan said they were offered several — would send an incorrect message to the public.
“We haven’t done anything wrong,” Bonan said, “and taking a deal concedes that we were at fault, even if that fault was not very great.
“The fact is, we were not at fault at all.”
In what Hartford 18 member and Wesleyan graduate Adam Hurter called “a national test case for basic free speech in the ‘War on Terrorism,'” college-age Connecticut activists decided to march in Hartford last October to protest U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. But their demonstration ran afoul of police, who demanded they cease their activities because they failed to obtain a permit as required by law.
What happened next was a high-profile case of “protesters said, police said” over who was the aggressor and who was acting in self-defense. Bonan said he has obtained a videotape of the alleged altercations that will exculpate him and his colleagues. Prosecutors handling the case did not return repeated phone messages.
Other than this piece of evidence, Bonan said he thinks the facts of the case — in particular who is telling the truth and who is concealing it — will be a matter for the jury to decide.
Or perhaps for the judge.
Offenses in Connecticut can be grouped into three major categories: felonies, which carry a year or more’s worth of prison time; misdemeanors, for which defendants spend at least some time in jail; and infractions, which only require the payment of a fine. Those accused of crimes belonging to either of the first two classes get a jury trial, while only some people accused of infractions have their fate decided by their peers.
Prosecutors sometimes reduce the charges originally filed against a defendant, leaving the verdict to be rendered by judge rather than jury.
But Pattis said he is hoping for a jury trial, and Yale law professor Steven Duke said he knows why.
“Juries almost always prefer the defendant,” Duke said. “Judges are more likely to believe the police and favor the prosecution.
“Factually, most defendants are guilty, and many judges, knowing this, presume that a defendant before him is guilty, too,” he added.
Bonan said he, Greene and Cappella are awaiting their next court date on Oct. 15 in Hartford Superior Court. Pattis said he is confident the truth will prevail at trial.
“We’re going to see the whites of the jurors’ eyes, and they’ll see the prosecution’s case for what it really is — flimsy and unpersuasive,” he said.