Behind closed doors
Indyweek.com (2008-01-09) Parick Oneill
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POSTED ON JANUARY 9, 2008:
Defendants to appeal conviction
By Patrick O'Neill
Judge Edgar Barnes had had enough. At a Dec. 5 trial, Beth Brockman of Durham told the Currituck County district court judge it was ironic that she and six co-defendants were facing jail sentences for trespassing at the North Carolina headquarters of Blackwater USA, while Blackwater's mercenaries in Iraq were protected from prosecution for allegedly killing civilians.
Barnes ordered the bailiffs to close the courtroom to everyone except court personnel and the defendants, who acted as their own attorneys. Six defendants were tried, convicted and sentenced in secret, which, as the American Civil Liberties Union noted, violated their Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. One defendant was tried and convicted before the courtroom was closed.
Barnes also gave the boot to reporters from television stations and newspapers, including the Indy.
Brockman, a 45-year-old mother of two, and a member of Durham's First Presbyterian Church, was convicted of trespassing and resisting arrest, charges stemming from a protest last fall at Blackwater's Moyock headquarters near the Outer Banks.
Brockman's six codefendants, four of whom are connected to Catholic Worker communities along the East Coast, were convicted of similar charges. All seven received suspended jail sentences and were fined $100 and required to pay court costs. They appealed the decision and are due back in Superior Court Jan. 22 for a jury trial.
Blackwater, which recently changed its name to Blackwater Worldwide, has been under intense scrutiny since Sept. 16, when one of its security details fired on civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square, killing 17 civilians, in an attack witnesses said was unprovoked.
The Oct. 20 protest was intended to symbolically reenact the Nisour killings. Protesters drove a stationwagon riddled with faux bullet holes and splattered with red paint past Blackwater's gate. The protesters pretended to be dead, which led to the resisting arrest charge when the police had to carry them to nearby squad cars.
Katy Parker, legal director for the N.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Virginian-Pilot she had never heard of a North Carolina judge conducting a trial as Barnes did.
"It's a clear violation of constitutional rights, not only of the defendants but the press and public," Parker said. "They have a right to a public trial, so any trial that goes on behind closed doors is a farce."
Brockman and the other defendants have said they will refuse to pay court costs or fines, which will likely land them in jail if they lose their appeal.
"It felt like a violation to have everybody kicked out of the courtroom," Brockman said. "The judge did not want his courtroom to be used as a forum for our views against the war or for talking the truth about Blackwater. He just shut everything down."
Brockman had come to court prepared to go to jail. She had sent her Christmas cards and bought presents for her family, including her daughter, Catie, 11, and her son Matt, 7. Her husband, Larry, was ready to care for his family alone if she had gone to jail for 30 days, a sentence the judge suspended.
Last August, Brockman spent five days in a Tennessee jail for an act of civil disobedience at the Oak Ridge, Tenn., nuclear weapons facility. She was also arrested a year ago at the U.S. Supreme Court in a protest against the death penalty.
"As a disciple of Jesus Christ, I can't be silent in the face of violence and destructiveness," she said. "I felt that God has called me to these actions because they are hopeful, and they do resist the status quo and empire."