Cindy Sheehan and 28 other antiwar activists were convicted yesterday of staging an illegal protest outside the White House after they failed in their attempt to deliver petitions to President Bush.
Sheehan, whose son was killed in the Iraq war, and about 370 other protesters were arrested Sept. 26 and charged with demonstrating without a permit. They had marched to the White House to demand a meeting with Bush and to deliver their petitions. When they were turned away, the activists sat on the sidewalk in front of the White House and defied orders to leave.
They were not committing a crime, Sheehan insisted yesterday, a few minutes after she was convicted in the first trial stemming from the episode.
"We were guilty of nothing," she said outside the federal courthouse. "We were only exercising our First Amendment right."
The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Catharine A. Hartzenbusch, said the Code of Federal Regulations requires a permit for a demonstration on the White House sidewalk by more than 25 people. U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan Kay concluded that Sheehan and the others were demonstrating.
"They violated the regulation, I think, knowingly, intentionally, as a means for obtaining a public forum," Kay told the packed courtroom early yesterday afternoon.
Sheehan, 48, of Vacaville, Calif., was part of the first group to challenge the misdemeanor charge in court. Except for Sheehan, all the defendants represented themselves, and at times the two-day proceeding seemed like a law school class, as Kay tried to accommodate the legal novices appearing before him.
Aided by veteran civil rights lawyer Mark Goldstone and by Sheehan's attorney, Jon W. Norris, the pro se defendants picked a few from among themselves to make an opening statement, question witnesses, deliver closing arguments and make a final, and fruitless, plea for leniency.
Some cases were dropped by prosecutors as the trial got underway. That was not necessarily a cause for celebration among those who were off the hook, including a woman who protested, "I don't want to be dismissed." The judge told her that it was entirely within the government's power to dismiss the charge, with or without explanation.
From start to finish, it was a trial unlike most that unfold in the courthouse, as one defendant after another pilloried Bush from the well of the courtroom and from the witness stand.
Delivering the opening statement for the pro se defendants, Virginia Rodino of Baltimore launched into a denunciation of the war in Iraq, only to be cut off by Kay. "You want to make a political statement, and I'm not going to allow it," he told her.
When defendants took the stand, Kay often was forced to step in, but usually not before the witness-defendant managed a choice comment or two.
"I believe that Bush is a war criminal and he should be on trial," said Joy First of Madison, Wis.
Sheehan, who rose to prominence with her vigil last summer outside the president's ranch in Texas, was the last of the activists to testify.
Sitting down on that sidewalk, she said, was the act of a citizen who had -- with speeches, faxes and e-mails -- exhausted her other options for gaining the ear of the president. "I have tried to petition my government for redress of wrong, and I have never been answered," she said.
In asserting their innocence, she and the other defendants argued that the right to petition was protected under the First Amendment.
But Kay said the activists' actions went beyond petitioning the government, and he rejected that defense and others that were put forward, including challenges to arrest procedures and the contention that a permit had been issued.
All 29 were guilty as charged, Kay said, before ordering each defendant to pay a fine and a court fee totaling $75. As the judge left the bench, the activists erupted into the song "We Shall Overcome."