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Slow pace of justice wears down Occupy Wall Street defendants

An Occupy Wall Street activist takes part in a march in downtown Manhattan in New York July 11, 2012. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
An Occupy Wall Street activist takes part in a march in downtown Manhattan in New York July 11, 2012. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Occupy Wall Street protesters who once vowed to "occupy" the courts by challenging their arrests on minor violations have since been defeated by the slow pace of justice, with many forgoing trial.

As Occupy's two-year anniversary approaches on September 17, the movement that once captivated national attention has largely faded.

Hundreds of protesters campaigning against economic inequality set up a makeshift encampment in a downtown Manhattan park, inspiring dozens of similar sites across the country. Police eventually cleared the New York City park in a late-night raid.

More than 2,600 arrests were made in Manhattan in connection with Occupy, including 700 on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1.

Approximately half of all defendants accepted offers from the Manhattan District Attorney's office to dismiss the charges if they avoided arrest for six months. Hundreds more took plea deals. Overall, fewer than 70 cases reached trial, less than 3 percent of the total; 53 resulted in convictions.

Sixteen cases remained as of August, according to statistics tracked by the district attorney's office.

Many defendants found it too onerous to return time and again for court dates at the overburdened New York City Criminal Court, which handles hundreds of thousands cases a year, even when they felt their arrests were illegitimate, said Martin Stolar, a National Lawyers Guild attorney who handled hundreds of cases.

"What is the best use of your time?" Stolar said he asked several clients. "Is it coming to court and fighting the case, or is it moving on and continuing to do the political work that led you to the Occupy movement in the first place?"

For nearly two years after her arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge during an Occupy Wall Street march, Karina Garcia refused to accept a plea deal.

At her ninth court appearance in June, tears came to her eyes after the judge told her to come back again in two months. Finally, the judge ruled earlier this month that prosecutors had taken too long to bring her to trial and threw out her case.

"I was like, is this really happening? Is it finally over?" said Garcia, a schoolteacher at the time of her arrest. "It's been a very punitive process."

The vast majority of arrested protesters were charged with minor infractions, such as disorderly conduct or blocking vehicular traffic.

At the time, many protesters said they would fight the charges and press for trials. Court officials designated a special courtroom, and the Manhattan District Attorney's office assigned a team of prosecutors.

Some of the few cases that still endure have lasted more than 10 times as long as the encampment did.

"It's been a much slower process than I ever imagined," said Justin Adkins, 35, who traveled several hours from Williamstown, Massachusetts, to 10 court appearances before his case was also tossed out for speedy trial violations.

FLOOD OF CASES

As Garcia, Adkins and hundreds of other protesters were getting arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, Assistant District Attorney Nitin Savur's Blackberry began buzzing.

A week earlier, police had arrested nearly 100 people during an Occupy demonstration in Union Square, and prosecutors knew they could soon have a flood of cases.

"We started realizing, this is not going to be one or two arrests each day," said Savur, the deputy chief for the office's trial division.

Savur and other senior prosecutors decided to appoint an experienced assistant, Michele Bayer, as "protest supervisor" and assigned two assistants to handle all Occupy-related cases.

The model proved successful, Savur said, enough that the office has designated a protest supervisor for other large-scale events, such as city parades, that could result in mass arrests. Overall, judges dismissed only a handful of cases for speedy trial reasons.

Still, the Occupy cases inched along, sometimes delayed for months at a time, a pace that defense lawyers said was common at Manhattan Criminal Court.

The grind that confronts criminal defendants was a revelation for Occupy defendants, many of whom were white, first-time offenders.

"People with very little experience with the criminal justice system see how it works, and they're astounded," said Stolar, the defense lawyer.

The Occupy cases included many defendants who were initially reluctant to accept deals. In addition, cases that involve defendants in jail are given priority, pushing Occupy cases further back in line.

Occupy cases typically involved lengthy pre-trial proceedings as defense lawyers argued their clients were simply exercising their right to free expression.

"These are not your run-of-the-mill, drinking-a-beer-on-the-sidewalk cases," said Justin Barry, the chief clerk for New York City Criminal Court. "These defendants had issues they wanted to bring up with the judge, and that takes time."

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; editing by Andrew Hay)

(This August 31 story was refiled to show that defendants who accepted prosecutors' offer to dismiss the charges if they were not arrested for six months did not plead guilty in the fifth paragraph.)

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