Gaertner dropping terrorism charges against RNC Eight

The Ramsey County Attorney is dropping terrorism-related charges against defendants known as the RNC Eight for their alleged plans to shut down the Republican National Convention in St. Paul last year.

“We believe the terrorism charges would have been a distraction at trial,” Susan Gaertner, the county attorney, said in a statement Thursday.  “Dismissing those charges will help us focus on the core illegal conduct that occurred.”

The so-called RNC Eight were the first to face terrorism charges under a law known as Minnesota Patriot Act of 2002, which was enacted during the tense months following the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

Even with those charges dropped, the Eight still face felony charges of first degree conspiracy to commit criminal damage to property and second degree conspiracy to commit riot.

“Under the circumstances, the terrorism charge just complicates the case,” Gaertner said.

Her office will formally drop the terrorism charges at a hearing in Ramsey County District Court on May 26, her press release said.

Defense responds

The Eight issued their own press release Thursday, crediting pressure from sympathizers around the country for forcing Gaertner to back down on the two terrorism charges which were conspiracy to commit riot in further of terrorism and conspiracy to commit criminal damage to property in furtherance of terrorism.

“We are heartened by the fact that our supporters have won this concession,” said defendant Nathanael Secor. “It’s taken a tremendous show of strength and solidarity over the past seven months.”

Noting that Gaertner is running for governor, the group’s statement said, “All of the charges are a matter of political maneuvering, not a reasoned look at the evidence.”

Sympathizers have signed more than 3,000 petitions asking Gaertner’s office to drop all charges, they said. And the Duluth Central Labor Body, a significant force in DFL politics Minnesota, passed a resolution opposing prosecution of the Eight. Their case has been reported on MSNBC, the Huffington Post and other national news outlets.

But Gaertner said Thursday afternoon in an interview with MinnPost that the decision to drop the terrorism charges “was made purely as a matter of trial strategy to enhance our ability to achieve a just result in this case at trial.”

It was predictable “but false,” she said, that critics would link the decision to her bid for governor.

“Any time you have a case like this it is predictable that no matter what you do someone is going to be unhappy,” she said. “Either you are too tough or too soft. I am very used to criticism. It comes with the territory as county attorney.”

As for pressure from the Eight’s supporters, Gaertner said, it had no bearing on her decision but may send signals for the Legislature to review the 2002 law.

“I do think that a lesson that might have come out of this public discussion, a lesson to the Legislature,” she said. “That lesson is: If this is not how you intended the law to be used, then change the law.”
While eliminating the terrorism charges fulfills a defense goal, the Eight still must live with the notoriety that came from being alleged terrorists, said Jordan Kushner, a Minneapolis attorney who represents one of the Eight.

“The bigger issue is the stigma that comes from being accused as a terrorist,” he said.

Kushner also said he still expects constitutional issues related to freedom of speech and dissent to be raised in connection with the remaining charges.

Bruce Nestor, another defendant’s attorney, said: “You can never complain when a charge gets dropped. On the other hand, it’s really a tactical move because I think the County Attorney’s office realized they wouldn’t be able to sell to a jury the claim that these young people are terrorists.”

This move “doesn’t really changed what is essentially wrong with the entire investigation and prosecution,” Nestor said. The facts of the case simply don’t support the hundreds of thousands of dollars the Ramsey County sheriff spent investigating the case and they don’t square with claims authorities made that the Eight posed a danger to the city of St. Paul, he said.

Dropping the charges could cut significant time from the sentences the Eight would have faced had they been convicted in a trial expected to start this fall.

But Gaertner’s office noted in its press release that the terrorism-related charges may not have resulted in longer prison sentences because the state’s sentencing guidelines provide for stayed prison sentences with jail time, fines and other sanctions as possible conditions of probation.

The background
The case goes back to August 2007, when the Ramsey County Sheriff began investigating self-described anarchists who called themselves the RNC Welcoming Committee and plotted to disrupt the convention. An undercover deputy and other informants infiltrated the group. Then, on the weekend before the convention, deputies arrested the Eight and held them in jail while GOP delegates met and other protestors filled the streets.

Court documents allege that the group’s preparations ranged from practicing peaceful sit-ins to training for more violent tactics, including throwing Molotov cocktails, overturning vehicles and rioting. Authorities also allege they organized other anarchists around the country for action in St. Paul.

In raids on the group’s hangouts, authorities seized PVC piping, paint, bleach, marbles and slingshots, bricks and cement blocks, gas masks, bolt cutters, firecrackers, empty glass bottles, flammable liquids and rags.

Authorities allege that the mundane items were homemade ingredients for dangerous weapons such as Molotov cocktails and missiles that could be dropped from freeway overpasses.

“The RNC Welcoming Committee’s own website said the organization intended to blockade streets, bridges and freeways utilized by delegate buses and dignitaries and to immobilize the buses,” prosecutors allege in their complaint. “The RNC Welcoming Committee planned to damage property and riot in an attempt to shut down the convention.  The defendants engaged in extensive planning and training to carry out that mission.”

Those charged and now free on bail range in age from 20 to 33. They are Monica Bicking, Erik Oseland, Robert Czernik, Garrett Fitzgerald, Nathanael Secor, Luce Guillen-Givins, Eryn Trimmer and Max Specktor. 

Attorneys for the Eight say their first defense is that they didn’t do anything illegal. Freedom of speech and dissent are other pieces of the defense strategy. Defense attorneys have stressed in interviews about the cases that talking about potentially unlawful acts is not the same as doing them under United States law, and that speech cannot be criminalized unless it poses “a clear and imminent danger.” Because the Eight were arrested before the convention, they sat in jail while others protested.

In addition to the Eight, the county attorney’s office noted Thursday that it has charged 13 adults with felony crimes related to street disturbances during the convention.  Those charges included obstruction of legal process, first-degree criminal damage to property and second-degree assault. To date, three defendants have pled guilty and eight are pending trial, it said.  Prosecutors dismissed charges against two defendants.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Brian Hokanson on 04/09/2009 - 12:52 pm.

    press statement from friends of the rnc8:

    now all the energy can be focused on calling attention to the bogus conspiracy charges. not only is political organizing not terrorism, it’s not terrorism, either. gaertner needs to take it a step further and drop all the charges.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/09/2009 - 12:56 pm.

    “Defense attorneys have stressed in interviews about the cases that talking about potentially unlawful acts is not the same as doing them under United States law…”

    Erm, right. We call it “conspiracy”….you know, what they’re charged with.

    Sounds like “the Eight” have spared no expense in procuring top notch legal representation for themselves!

  3. Submitted by Steve Backoff on 04/09/2009 - 01:57 pm.

    The “you might be a terrorist if…” Jeff Foxworthy inspired quiz.

    How many of these items do you have in your home??

    “PVC piping, paint, bleach, marbles and slingshots, bricks and cement blocks, gas masks, bolt cutters, firecrackers, empty glass bottles, flammable liquids and rags.”

    Then you might be a terrorist.

    Personally, I don’t have a gas mask or firecrackers (but talk to me again around the 4th of July). I don’t have a slingshot, but could probably put one together from stuff in the basement.

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 04/09/2009 - 02:07 pm.

    A cry for Justice:

    May the trial now become a public stage where oppression and abuse of power – in whatever subtle forms undemocratic practices may expose themselves – be vetted and questioned and seriously condemned in all their subtle and not so subtle forms…be it squads of police parading as militia; be it the Patriot Act, Homeland Security abusing itself; invasion of privacy in collaborative data bases…all that carelessly or thoughtlessly or blatantly execute repression of the right of public assembly.

    It happened here in “Nice” Minnesota and we have to live with the stain of it all.

    St Paul lost its ‘sainthood’ when black-clad ninja turtles terrorized the streets; and maybe we as a state, lost our innocence.

    “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free…”, Johann W von Goethe

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/09/2009 - 03:27 pm.

    Favorite quote from a domestic terrorist supporter, regarding “bustin’ sh** up”:

    “I don’t think the tactics are a problem; the problem is how people are interpreting the tactics.”

    Pure Gold!

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/09/2009 - 03:30 pm.

    “not only is political organizing not terrorism, it’s not terrorism, either.”

    Did you come up with that on your own, or is this another quote from one the those scary smart defense lawyers?

  7. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/09/2009 - 09:40 pm.

    If this is the right decision, and I don’t doubt it is, why didn’t Ms. Gaertner simply make the right decision in the first place?

  8. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/10/2009 - 01:33 pm.

    Thanks, Ms. Rowley, for shedding additional light, rather than more heat, as some above have done.

    I am afraid the kind of decision-making Ms. Gaertner has shown in this matter may be a preview of the kind of governor she would make, if she should successfully run for that office.

    To bring charges which you have no intention of carrying forward would be an abuse of the prosecutorial power, if not downright unlawful.

    On the other hand, if the prosecutor simply doesn’t understand the charges at the time they are issued, and must later recant based on further reflection, I fear for the accused who will be whipsawed by this…what is it, anyway? – Indecision? Incompetence? Grandstanding? Or is it just that it took her that long to see the issue clearly?

    I still don’t know why Ms. Gaertner would behave the way she did in this case, because I don’t have an answer to the simple question: Why didn’t she simply make this decision in the first place?

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