Seven D.C. activists were acquitted yesterday of charges that they unlawfully entered House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's office last year in an attempt to gain the Illinois Republican's support for giving local officials final say over the city's budget.
The members of the Budget Autonomy for the District Coalition, who defended themselves during the two-day trial in D.C. Superior Court, contended that they had a constitutional right to remain in Hastert's office after a staff member told them to leave.
Jurors deliberated for several hours over two days. Jury foreman Kevin Dennis said in a telephone interview last night that jurors remained "deeply divided" hours before they reached the verdict. But ultimately, he said, the group was unconvinced that the defendants had heard the request to leave Hastert's office.
"Our own feelings about the severity of the charge and our own feeling as Washingtonians did not come into consideration," Dennis said.
Adam Eidinger, 30, a defendant in the case, said he was excited and a bit surprised by the verdict. "This is a substantial victory for D.C. democracy activism," said Eidinger, a D.C. Statehood candidate for shadow U.S. representative, an unpaid lobbying position.
The activists entered Hastert's office in the Cannon House Office Building on Oct. 1, dressed in Colonial-era garb, signifying the District's lack of political autonomy, and requested a meeting with Hastert.
Judge Craig Iscoe, who presided over the trial, prohibited either side from discussing politics in front of the jury. But in audio recordings of the protest presented in court, the defendants could be heard singing a song, "Indentured Servants on the D.C. Plantation."
William H. Mosley Jr., a defendant in the case, testified that he led the protesters in songs and chants after it became clear that they would not be able to meet with Hastert.
In her closing statement, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Natashia Tidwell said the activists' failure to leave the office when requested, and not politics, was the issue. "This case is about seven people who refused to take no for an answer," she told the jury. "This case is not about . . . whether we agree or disagree with their political views."
Defendant Anise Jenkins, in the closing argument, told jurors: "We were only there 51 seconds. . . . We had a right to be in this congressional public building."
If convicted of the misdemeanor charge, each defendant would have faced a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $300 fine.