If a house is on fire and its occupants are crying "Help us," it would not be a crime for a would-be rescuer to kick in the door to save those inside. In legalese, that's known as the defense of necessity: An insignificant infraction of the law is overlooked if the lawless act is done to prevent a greater evil.
So went the argument of myself and 13 others who went to trial Jan. 5 for trespass in Johnston County District Court. Last Nov. 18, a group of anti-torture activists, including Voices in the Wilderness founder Kathy Kelly of Chicago and my 17-year-old daughter, Bernadette Rider O'Neill, trespassed on the property of Aero Contractors, Ltd., a Johnston County company that maintains and provides pilots for two corporate jets the Central Intelligence Agency has used for "extraordinary rendition," or torture by proxy (see "Getting an education (and a mug shot) at the CIA's Johnston County base" in the Nov. 23 edition; indyweek.com/durham/2005-11-23/first.html).
The 14 of us had gone to Aero's Johnston County Airport offices to hand-deliver a citizens' indictment for crimes against international law and U.S. law and for violating the Geneva Convention and the "U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment."
With help from two expert witnesses, we argued in court that our minor infraction, trespass, was necessary to call attention to Aero's far more grievous criminal activities.
Before court, local ACLU lawyer Mike Reece gave us a head's up. Our judge, Robert Ethridge, was a Republican who almost always finds defendants guilty.
Reece was right. Ethridge did find the 14 of us guilty, but not before allowing us to make our case for necessity. It seemed that Ethridge and Johnston County assistant district attorney Ann Kirby were a bit curious about what our VIP experts--UNC law professor emeritus Daniel Pollitt and Baptist firebrand the Rev. W.W. Finlator--would have to say in our defense.
Pollitt said the actions of the defendants were protected by the First Amendment and the necessity defense was applicable in this case because the defendants were exercising their free speech. "The First Amendment trumps the law," Pollitt said.
Pollitt also told some unusual stories regarding the applicability of necessity; like the time a bunch of British sailors on a ship adrift at sea killed and ate the cabin boy after running out of food: "The king pardoned them all," Pollitt said.
Finlator said the Bible "has a bias in favor of justice," and that unlike the CIA's secret rendition policy, the 14 protesters openly engaged in their actions as a way to expose a crime.
Defendant Josh McIntyre of Raleigh testified that he tried to deliver a copy of the indictment to Aero, but he was met at the door by a uniformed man who was pointing a Taser gun at him. He asked the man pointing the gun to take the indictment. The man refused, so McIntyre left a copy of the nine-page indictment at the foot of the door.
"I entered the property for the sole purpose of preventing a larger and more serious crime," McIntyre told Ethridge. "We were all there for the same purpose: to expose to the greater community a violation of international and national law."
Defendant Dante Strobino of Raleigh testified that torture and slavery have been "commonplace in U.S. history" and that the recent actions of the CIA were not merely "freakish irregularities."
Bernadette, who came to court with her mother, Mary Rider, and teenage friends Justine Thompson and Fredy Torres, had a reality check in the courthouse. Unlike her lighthearted day in jail following the arrest, Bernadette was clearly uneasy being a defendant in a criminal trial. Her eyes watered at times and the real prospect of a short jail sentence was unsettling.
Kindness came from unexpected places. Once a bailiff asked Bernadette if she was OK, and Kirby, the prosecutor, even teased Bernadette about her jailhouse mug shot that was published in the Independent the week after her arrest.
Bernadette was solid as a rock, however, when she read her statement in court. "As a Christian, my faith requires that I take a moral stand when I see injustice happening," she said. "We had to risk arrest in order to expose the crimes of our government and the shameful role that a Johnston County business is playing in this criminal activity."
The Johnston County Airport is one of two North Carolina locations where Aero Contractors operates. The company also maintains a 737 jet in a hangar at Kinston's Global TransPark. That jet has also been traced to rendition flights. An Aero spokesman has acknowledged that the company maintains government contracts, but said he would not share any information about those contracts.
Aero was also recently named in an ACLU lawsuit filed by Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen who claims he was tortured after being abducted and taken away on an Aero-operated plane. After five months in custody, El-Masri was released without charge.
After hearing the evidence, Ethridge said the defendants did not make their case for necessity, and that the Bible calls on people to "be obedient to the law."
"I believe in Jesus Christ, and I believe what the Bible says is true," Ethridge said. But the Bible cannot be used "to excuse criminal activity."
Ethridge said he had no choice under state law except to find us guilty. Each defendant received one year of probation, a $50 fine and $110 court costs. I also received a suspended 20-day jail sentence because I have more than five prior convictions. The case is now under appeal, which means we are now entitled to a jury trial in Superior Court.
Following the trial, most of the defendants and many of our supporters returned to the Johnston County Airport for another protest outside Aero's gate. On Jan. 6, a day later, another group of us went to Kinston, where we cordoned off Aero's hanger with yellow crime scene tape and asked local sheriff's deputies to investigate Aero's activities. We were not arrested. More copies of the indictment were also delivered to various state officials including Gov. Mike Easley, who is chairman of the Global TransPark board.
Back in her classes at Raleigh's Cardinal Gibbons High School, Bernadette found lots of encouraging support. Several teachers asked Bernadette to tell the class why she was arrested, and in two classes, literature and theology, her classmates applauded her actions.
The other defendants convicted of second-degree trespassing were: Kathleen Kelly, 52, of Chicago; Marty King, 63, of Missouri; Scott Langley, 29, of Raleigh; Gerald Surh, 66, of Raleigh; Mark Chmiel, 45, of Missouri; Bill Ramsey, 57, of Missouri; McIntyre, 38; Strobino, 23; Deborah Biesack, 41, of Fuquay-Varina; Andrew Wimmer, 50, of Missouri; Stephanie Eriksen, 46, of Raleigh; Diane Lee, 47, of Missouri; and me, 49, of Garner.
Patrick O'Neill is a longtime contributor to the Independent and co-founder, with his wife Mary Rider, of the Father Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House in Garner.