NEW YORK — December 15, 2004 — The Court of Appeals, New York State’s highest court, announced Saturday that it will consider whether dismissed and sealed cases may be considered in imposing jail sentences on four political demonstrators who protested the U.S.-sponsored occupation of Palestine and the U.S. war on Iraq.
Justices will hear arguments about whether, once charges have been dropped against the accused and the allegations are sealed, they are removed from a defendant’s criminal record or whether the unproven allegations can be revived in a future case as reason to impose a harsher sentence.
The four defendants in the case were convicted for their role in a non-violent protest which blocked traffic in midtown Manhattan on March 2003. Each of the four has one or more prior cases, all of which were dismissed with the consent of prosecutors.
"Prosecutors are now seeking to argue that the dismissed cases, some of which are nearly 10 years old, were valid and should be considered aggravating circumstances which justify harsher than usual punishment," said Stephen Edwards, the trial lawyer defending the protesters.
According to several attorneys and advocacy groups such as the NYCLU, the National Lawyer’s Guild, and the Legal Aid Society’s Special Litigation Bureau, the District Attorney’s move is unprecedented in such a case. The groups have all filed arguments as "friends of the court" regarding the matter.
“We hope that the court will re-affirm its precedents, clarify the legislature’s intent and assure that the presumption of innocence is a reality for people whose cases are dismissed, not just an abstract principle that can be set aside in particular cases when it becomes inconvenient for a prosecutor. This issue is important not just for these petitioners but for everyone who is ever arrested and succeeds in getting their charges dropped,”? commented Rob Newman, staff attorney with the special litigation unit of the Legal Aid Society.
The case, which has attracted worldwide attention, is seen not only as a test case for protesters such as those arrested at the recent Republican National Convention, but also as an indicator of just how far the courts are willing to go in suppressing speech critical of U.S. foreign policy.
"Having been an eyewitness to Israel’s brutal occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, I am saddened, but not surprised, that the District Attorney’s office has gone to such lengths to suppress speech that denounces the U.S.’s unabashed support for it," said Lysander Puccio, one of the four defendants.
The defendants and their lawyer are available for comment. Contact Eric Monse at (646) 479-9168
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