On Feb. 20, 1978, the police who patrol the U.S. capitol grounds created a new regulation primarily in honor of one man-Stacey Abney-and made his way of life a crime.
For two years, Abney, a 67-year-old disgruntled World War II veteran-has been sleeping on a bed of newspapers beneath the marble steps that lead to the Capitol rotunda, surrounded by brown paper bags stuffed with his belongings.
Abney said he camped out at the Capitol because that was as close as he could get to senators and representatives whose support he needs for his 30-year-old claim against the Veterans Adinistration for a disability pension.
The Capitol police complained however that Abney's berth beneath the steps created a safety hazard, impeding the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Now, there's an amendment to the Capitol's traffic regulations which specifically prohibits "sleeping or lying down on paved portions" of the Capitol grounds.
That hasn't stopped Stacey Abney. Yesterday, Abney was convicted by a D.C. Superior Court judge of violating the new regulation. After 10 minutes of deliberation, a jury then found him guilty of unlawful entry, but not before the man from Quinlan, Tex., had a chance to tell his story.
"when I left Texas in 1975, my target was the Congress, the Senate and even the president of the United States, if I could get to him," Abney, a stocky man, with a thick, muscular neck and a scowl etched in his face, told the jury.
"i read the U.S. Constitution before I left Home, and according to the First Amendment I have a right to free speech," testified Abney, who admits frequently buttonholed officials and visitors as they made their way in and out of the Capitol.
"I just don't see how the Capitol police could come right along and just make up their own law and do away with the Constitution."
Abney testified that in 1976, after he was repeatedly awakened by Capitol police and told to move, he complained to the sergeant-arms of the Congress.
"he told me he didn't see where I was violating any law by just sleeping under the steps," Abney told the jury.
William P. McDermott, general counsel to the U.S. Capitol police, said in an interview Abney is not the only violator of the new "no sleeping" regulation.
"there are many people other than Stacey," said McDermott, who authored the regulation. "sometimes secretaries sit on the sidewalks to get sun or when the grass is wet. If enough people do that, they create a traffic hazard."
Abney testified he was settling down for the night in his usual sleeping place near the general entrance to the Capitol last Oct. 18, when Lt. Frank Shelton of the Capitol police came along and asked him to leave.
"i was not bothering anyone," Abney testified. "to be in the way of pedestrians, they would have to make a special effort to come over to where I was.
"i told the officer that if I was breaking the law, I wanted him to arrest me," said Abney, who had just been released from jail after serving a six month term for unlawful entry-again for sleeping at the Capitol. "i told him that if I wasn't breaking the law, I wanted him to stop nagging me and running up my high blood pressure."
Shelton testified in court that Abney denied being in violation of the law. "he said he was conducting a protest," Shelton testified. "i said, OK, you're conducting a protest, let's see your permit."
When Abney could not produce a permit, Shelton said Abney was issued a 750 traffic citation for lying beneath the steps. When Abney still refused to leave the Capitol grounds. Shelton said he was arrested and charged with unlawfulentry.
A VA spokesman said in a telephone call that Abney is a veteran who served in the U.S. Army from July 2, 1942 to July 14, 1946.
Abney testified that over the years, he has submitted some 40 claims to the VA demanding that he be awarded a 100 percent service-connected disability pension for a case of rheumatic fever he said he contracted after he slept in the mud in France during the war.
"we have spent hundreds of man-hours researching Mr. Abney's claims," VA spokesman Dave Brigham said. "to date, after seven formal re-evaluations of his case, we have not been able to find any evidence that he has ever had rheumatic fever."
Currently, Brigham said Abney receives $80 a month from a 20 percent service-connected disability pension resulting from ulcers and a fractured right ankle.
But Brigham said Abney has refused to accept a nonservice connected disability pension of $200 a month because Abney believes to accept the nonservice connected pension would damage his efforts to get 100 percent disability.
"mr. Abney is a man who is completely obsessed with the idea that the VA is against him," Brigham said. "he said he wants a fair hearing. But a fair hearing for Mr. Abney would be for us to say he is eligible for a 100 percent service-connected pension, when he is not."
During his trial before Judge Dyer Justice Taylor, Abney often argued with his court-appointed attorney Sidney Sherman and squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head back and forth in vigorous disagreement with the arguments of Assistant U.S. Attorney William D. Nussbaum and Assistant D.C. Corporation Counsel Sherman Robinson.
"all I was trying to do was exercise my First Amendment rights," Abney said in his final words to the jury. "and the police treated me like a stray dog or cat." Abney, who could receive a maximum jail term of nine months on the unlawful entry charge, will be sentenced on May 8.
Meanwhile, Abney's sleeping in the D.C. Jail, where he's being held on a $300 bond. CAPTION: Picture, Stacey Abney is shown in 1977 in his sleeping place under the steps leading to the Capitol Rotunda. By Ellisworth Davis-The Washington Post