Occupy Update

news occupyJudge dismisses charges against four of the Santa Cruz 11

“I’m so happy,” declared Grant Wilson at the Santa Cruz County Courthouse the morning of Wednesday, April 25. 

Wilson and three co-defendants had just attended their second day of pre-trial hearings to face charges of trespassing, vandalism and felony conspiracy stemming from the Nov. 30, 2011 occupation of a vacant Downtown Santa Cruz bank. Santa Cruz Superior Court Judge Paul Burdick told a courtroom full of supporters and observers that he was dismissing all charges against Wilson and the three co-defendants, Franklin Alcantara, Edward Rector and Cameron Laurendau. Witnesses inside the courtroom say that Burdick told the prosecution, “you paint with too broad a brush,” and that insufficient evidence had been presented to show that any of the four had intended to “commit trespass by design.”

“It was spectacular,” Wilson said. “The judge said that the assistant DA had not shown any evidence that any of us had committed any vandalism, or that any of us had been there other than [for] a short period of time in daylight hours on Nov. 30, when the building was first occupied.”

Becky Johnson, another one of the 11 people charged by the Santa Cruz District Attorney in this case, was on the scene and observed the dismissal. “Pinch me—this must be a dream,” she told GT just minutes after the charges were dismissed. “I’ve been watching these courtrooms for years and I haven’t seen anything like this. I would call it justice.”

Johnson is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on May 29. “I’m anticipating a motion to dismiss my charges before that date,” she said. “That could happen in light of today’s findings.”

Jamyrson Pittori, the attorney representing co-defendent Rector, says there simply wasn’t a case against the individuals in question. “When my client happened upon the scene on Nov. 30, the doors [of the bank building] were wide open, there were about a hundred people milling about,” Pittori says. “There were two police officers standing on the lawn not saying anything to anybody. There was amplified music coming out of the building. Who wouldn’t be curious? It looked like a lawful community event.”

Assistant District Attorney Rebekah Young said in court that she plans to re-file charges against Alcantara and Laurendau.

“I don’t see why,” Alcantara said after the hearing. “It’s going to waste a whole lot of taxpayers dollars.” He added that he might pursue a counter-lawsuit against the Santa Cruz Police Department and District Attorney. “I feel I’ve been selectively prosecuted because I’ve been out there throughout the whole [Occupy] movement,” he said.

Johnson agrees. “This particular case was scapegoating a bunch of activists,” she says. In an early April interview, ADA Young offered GT a different view. “What the current defendants would like you to think is that they’ve been picked on, they’ve been chosen because they’re community activists,” she said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

During the recent pre-trial hearings, the ADA presented a new estimate of damage incurred during the three-day occupation of the building, which is leased by Wells Fargo. Originally pegged to be $30,000, the amount is now said to be $22,000.

“I think Wells Fargo can absorb the $22,000,” said Pittori. “That would be a tax write off for them. But the thousands on top of thousands that we spend prosecuting innocent, curious people? There’s nowhere we can write that off.”

Judge Burdick also deemed testimony from David Gunter, the lead police investigator for the case, not to be credible after Gunter testified during one hearing that he hadn’t been at the occupied building on Dec. 2 and at a later hearing said he had.

For some of the co-defendants, the most unsettling thing about the case was the conspiracy charges.

“According to lawyers, conspiracy can have to do with anything before, during or after a supposed crime,” Wilson said. “If I meet with any of the other 11, it could be considered evidence that we were conspiring and committed a crime. It has a chilling and isolating influence.”

Pittori said that the ADA’s attempt to show conspiracy fell short. “The cases she did cite were murder cases where two co-defendants had active parts,” he said. ”You can’t stretch that to a trespass-vandalism case.”
According to ADA Young, the intent of the individual defendants is not what controls a charge.  “Everyone could come back after the fact and say, ‘I just wanted to give my support,’” she told GT in April. “What the law looks at is the conduct. Did you trespass in that building? That’s the touchstone.”

Outside of the courthouse, Wilson seemed pleased but not ready to celebrate. “I’m in the clearing but there are still woods around,” he said. “There are other people who are innocent, being accused of serious crimes. I encourage people to sign the online ACLU petition to drop all the charges.” As of press time, more than 1,000 people had signed the petition, which is titled “ACLU Statement of Support” and is found online at santacruzeleven.org.

“I hope justice prevails and truth is exposed,” Wilson added soberly.

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