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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.
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 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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