A Story of Resistance: How a Conservative Rural Community Repudiated the Administration’s Effort to Criminalize Dissent

On March 17, 2003, Saint Patrick’s Day, only days before “Shock and Awe,” four Catholic Workers entered the U.S. Military Recruiting Station in Ithaca, NY, and spilled their blood to protest the imminent invasion of Iraq. They knelt, read a statement in opposition to the war, prayed, and waited to be arrested. Ithaca is home to both Cornell University and Ithaca College and has long been a bastion of liberal/progressive sentiment in conservative upstate New York. Indicted on felony criminal mischief, the four represented themselves at trial. They argued that the action was justified, invoking international law. A Tompkins County jury was unable to reach a verdict, and a mistrial was declared. The District Attorney, reportedly convinced that he would never convict with a local jury, referred the case to the Federal authorities.

On February 17, 2005, a federal grand jury in Binghamton, New York indicted the four: Daniel Burns, Teresa Grady, Clare Grady, and Peter DeMott, now referred to as the St. Patrick’s Four, under an obscure federal statute (18 US Code Sec. 372), alleging conspiracy to impede an officer by “force, intimidation, or threat.” The Four now faced a potential sentence of six years and fine of $250,000. The Justice Department must have been confident that they had the proper conservative, rural venue in which to bring this indictment, to secure a sure conviction, and to set a precedent criminalizing opposition to the war with severe sentencing exposure. Events did not unfold as they planned.

Saint Patrick's Four

The St. Patrick’s Four were never intimidated. They come from the Plowshares tradition and welcomed the opportunity to speak truth to power. In Binghamton, a number of activists began to plan for support of the Four. A defense team of lawyers, paralegals, and defendants worked together to prepare for trial. Just as importantly, a local support committee grew, involving veterans against the war, other activists, secular as well as religious. When the Judge denied the Four the right to present a defense referencing international law, an ambitious Citizens Tribunal was organized, to run every night of the trial. The testimonies of James Petras, Medea Benjamin, veterans, former intelligence officers, a former British Member of Parliament, and more were heard by overflow nightly crowds and reported daily in the local press. Every day of trial, the street in front of the Federal Courthouse was filled with supporters and opponents of the Four. The local media was full of not only coverage of the trial but also reflections on the war for the entire week. By the week’s end, the barriers dividing supporters and opponents of the Four were removed by the people. Both sides were expressing support for the troops, with supporters of the Four emphasizing that support meant bringing the troops home.

Remarkably, on September 26, 2005, an upstate New York jury repudiated the Government prosecution and found the Four not guilty of the felony conspiracy charge. Guilty verdicts were returned on misdemeanor counts, consistent with defense testimony accepting full responsibility for the action. The four individuals represented themselves pro se, without legal counsel, against the prosecution of the U.S. Government. Despite being denied the opportunity to present a defense of justification, despite being prevented from making any reference to international law, the four defendants won.

It may not seem like much in the larger picture, but Binghamton, New York and the surrounding community spent a week immersed in the debate over Iraq, and in the end the Four were acquitted in a verdict that stands as an indication of what average citizens have come to understand about this war.

It is good to find evidence of a shifting tide. Dissent and resistance is growing. This week in Binghamton, while others assembled in Washington and marched to oppose the war, a community had the opportunity to reflect, and a jury had the duty to deliberate. The St. Patrick’s Four were found not guilty. After the celebrations, the work to build broader opposition to the war will continue.

Jim Moran was a member of the defense team. Please contact Moran at <jim.moran@ailaw.com> with any question you may have.