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Charges Against Death Penalty Protestors Dismissed in Centre County

BELLEFONTE, PA – (July 19, 2000) Misdemeanor and summary charges filed against 15 anti-death penalty protestors arrested on July 9 at the National Governors Association meeting were dismissed at a preliminary hearing in the District Court of Centre County this afternoon. Centre County District Attorney, Ray Gricar, who personally prosecuted the case, was unable to convince District Justice Daniel Hoffman that the state had enough evidence to proceed with a trial against the 15 activists. State Troopers arrested the members of Pennsylvania Abolitionists on a public roadway leading to the conference center where the governors were meeting. The charges of disorderly conduct and obstructing a highway carried a maximum penalty of 15 months in prison.

Officer Kenneth Epfield of the Pennsylvania State Police, who supervised the arrests, was the sole witness for the prosecution. He stated that the individuals in the group marched in a single file line along the shoulder of the road leading to the conference center bound together with a chain and locks. Epfield testified that State Troopers formed a line on the roadway, blocking the berm and an entire traffic lane. As the individuals neared the police officers, Epfield ordered one of the protestors at the front of the line to not block the roadway. As the demonstrators stepped onto the road, Epfield stated that within seconds he informed them that they were under arrest and that troopers encircled the protesters and moved them onto the berm by “pushing, pulling, and dragging.”

Andy Shubin, a Centre County criminal defense and civil rights attorney representing the abolitionists, asserted that it was not the protesters who blocked the roadway but the police standing in the way of the Penn Stater Hotel Conference Center. Under cross-examination, Epfield acknowledged that several cars drove by the scene during the arrest and were not impeded by the disturbance.

Justice Hoffman agreed with the defense and commuted the misdemeanor obstruction charges to a summary offense. The judge then informed the defendants that if they entered a guilty plea to the summary charge, he would give them a minimal fine of $25 plus court costs; if they refused the offer, they would immediately move from the preliminary proceedings into a trial on the summary charge. None of the defendants was willing to accept the deal, and Shubin informed the judge that he was not prepared to move to trial and would not represent the abolitionists in such a trial. Facing the prospect of 15 pro se activist-defendants, Justice Hoffman decided to dismiss all the charges against the abolitionists.

“These people were here to express their opinion about the death penalty and expressing it in the best tradition of our democracy,” Shubin said following the preliminary hearing.

District Attorney Ray Gricar said that he felt the case was solid and did not understand the reasoning behind the judge’s decision. Gricar is urging the State Police to refile the charges and so that he may begin new proceedings against the abolitionists. Gricar is a staunch supporter of executions in Pennsylvania.

Shubin scored another NGA-related protest victory in the same courtroom earlier in the day when charges were dismissed against five Penn State students who were arrested on July 10th for refusing to take down a banner when the governors visited the university. The students were members of Redirection 2000, a group protesting the domination of the NGA by private corporations “hosting” the meetings and the total banning of citizen groups from the event.