In a preliminary hearing on Jan. 7, Santa Cruz County judge Paul Burdick dismissed charges against three of the remaining seven defendants implicated in the occupation of a vacant bank last winter.
Judge Burdick also fined the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s (DA) office $500 for the failure of prosecutor Rebekah Young to turn over evidence to the defense in a timely manner. Judge Burdick said this is the first time he’s ever had to impose such a fine.
Defense attorneys have complained of repeated delays throughout the trial’s yearlong proceedings. One attorney, Alexis Briggs, asked for steeper penalties in light of hardships imposed on the defendants by the charges. During the proceedings several of the defendants were unable to visit family members who passed away in other states, one was prevented from renewing her California teaching credential and another attempted suicide shortly after the charges were levied.
Judge Burdick denied the request.
Before Tuesday’s hearing the seven defendants faced charges of felony conspiracy, felony vandalism and two separate counts of misdemeanor trespass for their allegedrole in the three-day-long occupation of a vacant Wells Fargo building at 75 River Street on Nov. 30, 2011.
Judge Burdick dismissed one count of misdemeanor vandalism charges as well as the felony conspiracy charge against all seven defendants, citing a lack of evidence of premeditation in the occupation. Charges were then dropped entirely against Robert Norse, Becky Johnson and Desiree Foster. Judge Burdick said the evidence placing those three at the scene after police told them to leave was inconclusive.
“It’s a combination of feeling relieved and sort of happy, but at the same time feeling guilty,” Norse said, “because there are still four other people continuing to suffer through this shit.”
Remaining defendants Gabriella Ripley-Phipps, Brent Adams, Franklin “Angel” Alcantara and Cameron Laurendeau had their arraignment set for Jan. 22.
Prosecutor Young said the cases are justified and that the DA’s office will press on with them.
“The police and DA’s office are dedicated to making this community as safe as it can be for everyone who lives here,” Young said. “The commitment shown in this case demonstrates our commitment to this community.”
The DA’s office will still have the ability to resubmit charges against the three defendants who were cleared on Jan. 8. Previously, charges had been dropped against Laurendeau and Alcantara before being re-filed after Young brought new evidence.
The defense intends to file a motion to dismiss all charges against the remaining four defendants before the arraignment. They are hopeful that the case will not go to trial.
Eleven people were charged in Feb. 2012 in connection with the occupation of the vacant bank building on River St. Charges were then dropped against two photojournalists and two other defendants last spring while the rest remained pending. The trials gave rise to a grassroots movement whose supporters claim that the defendants were wrongfully accused and merely protesting peacefully — or covering the protest in the case of the photojournalists.
“Empty buildings are the crime, not protesters,” said Becky Johnson, whose charges were dropped. “Especially when you have homeless people freezing on the streets without shelter. I mean, the Homeless Services Center reported 33 official homeless deaths in 2012 alone.”
The bank was occupied by dozens of activists, who in a press release described themselves as an “anonymous, autonomous group acting in solidarity with Occupy Santa Cruz” and seeking to turn the vacant building into a community center. After three days and numerous stand-offs with the police, the protesters exited the building peacefully.
Three months later, the original 11 defendants had charges brought against them after they were identified in recordings of the incident.
Former defendant Norse said he’s optimistic about the direction the cases have taken since then, but that the damage has already been done.
“It’s not just a personal kind of suffering, though it certainly is that as well,” Norse said. “But moreover it’s an attempt to politically isolate people. And what’s really depressing is that it works. People are afraid. You don’t see the mass protests that you did a year ago.”