Philadelphia Law

By Schwartz, Deb | The Nation, September 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Philadelphia Law


Schwartz, Deb, The Nation


A year after the last tiny flag waved and the last uplifting video montage played at the 2000 Republican National Convention, the City of Philadelphia seems poised to pay the price for being an overzealous host to the GOP. During the convention thousands of demonstrators took to the streets and were met by the police and the district attorney's office with a show of force that a number of Philadelphia activists and lawyers call unprecedented. More than 400 people were arrested, the vast majority of whom were held for several days without access to telephones, and some for as long as two weeks. Actions that are usually summary offenses were met with charges of multiple misdemeanors and felonies, and initial bail amounts for some protesters soared as high as $1 million.

But nearly a year later, almost all the cases have been heard, and over 95 percent of them have resulted in not-guilty verdicts or dismissals or have been thrown out in pretrial hearings. The use of the DA's top guns--homicide prosecutors--in court hasn't helped the city win any of the handful of felony cases (of forty-three original cases) that have gone to trial. These include the case of 19-year-old Matthew Berghs, whom a jury found not guilty of assaulting an officer--despite testimony by the police commissioner himself. The DA's office quietly dropped scores of cases, and many that did come to trial were plagued by an almost laughable lack of evidence.

Even in the cases of arrestees dubbed "ringleaders" by the police and saddled by the DA's office with the most serious charges and highest bails, the prosecution had little to back up its claims. A judge threw out the charges against Terrence McGuckin--accused of leading a band of protesters to block an intersection, held for seven days on $500,000 bail--after the defense introduced a videotape showing McGuckin nearly a mile away from the alleged crime site. The DA withdrew prosecution against John Sellers, who had been charged with a slew of misdemeanors and held on $1 million bail, because the prosecution simply had no evidence to present. During the trial of Kate Sorensen, held for ten days in solitary confinement on $1 million bail on allegations that she had directed a mob of protesters to vandalize police cars, flip dumpsters and set them afire, the arresting detective acknowledged that he had not seen Sorensen do anything of the sort. Sorensen was found not guilty on all charges save for one misdemeanor charge currently under appeal.

During the criminal trials evidence surfaced that supported the protesters' belief that there was a coordinated law enforcement effort to cripple their protests and muzzle their messages during the convention. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the FBI helped local and state police coordinate plans for responding to the demonstrations, and this July the Philadelphia Police Department acknowledged infiltrating protest planning meetings, monitoring e-mail discussion lists and taking photographs of those they suspected would participate in demonstrations. …

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