The Santa Cruz 11 dwindle in number, but the case crawls into its 29th month
This summer, the case against several activists who illegally occupied the former Wells Fargo bank at 75 River St. in 2011 will continue to crawl slowly along at Santa Cruz Superior Court. It would be too early to say things are falling apart for the District Attorney’s office, which sounded confident two years ago, but the situation isn’t rosy for the prosecutors.
Defense attorney Alexis Briggs recently filed a brief arguing District Attorney Bob Lee’s previous business relationship with Wells Fargo poses a conflict of interest, and that he should be removed from the case. Defense attorneys recently discovered Lee took out a $34,000 loan from the bank to pay for campaign expenses for the 2010 election—in which he ran unopposed. Fellow defense
attorney Jesse Ruben filed a motion alleging various prosecutorial mismanagements.
Depending on the judge’s interpretations, the latest developments could end up as blips in the now more than two-year-old court case—or the latest snag in a trial that’s seen its share of miscues from prosecutors, including a $500 fine, dismissed charges and delays.
Assistant District Attorney Greg Peinado isn’t sweating the defense’s motions. “We don’t believe it’s a conflict of interest,” Peinado says of Lee’s loan. “At the end of the day, it’s an old loan.”
An estimated $22,000 in damages, including graffiti and punctured walls, resulted from the three-day takeover of the bank, although no one has been convicted. Eleven people were arrested in connection with the takeover, which grew out of the Occupy Santa Cruz movement. Charges against seven of them were dismissed by the court, but four people are still facing trial. Their next court date is set for Aug. 27.
All the suspects, often collectively dubbed “The Santa Cruz 11,” were originally charged with felony vandalism, felony conspiracy
to commit vandalism and two misdemeanor counts of trespassing.
Judge Paul Burdick first dismissed the cases against photographer Bradley Allen and videographer Alex Darocy, whose attorneys argued that the two were present at the building for journalistic purposes only. Defense attorneys Ben Rice and George Gigarjian garnered support for their clients in the form of amicus briefs from the ACLU of Northern California and the National Press Photographers Association. Rice and Gigarjian argued that prosecuting their clients was a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press.
The decision was significant. The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that the First Amendment doesn’t protect journalists from laws not specifically targeting the press—including trespass laws. And San Francisco media attorney Jim Wagstaffe had said he’d never seen a case upholding a journalist’s constitutional right to trespass on private property.
Still, this situation might have been special. In the cases of Darocy and Allen, attorneys pointed out that other members of local media, like the Santa Cruz Sentinel, had also been at the property, but weren’t charged.
Charges also were dismissed against Desiree Foster, Edward Rector, Grant Wilson and well- known community activists Robert Norse and Becky Johnson.
As the number of defendants dwindled, Burdick dismissed the conspiracy charge against the remaining defendants, ruling there was no evidence of direct collusion or agreement. He held the charge of felony vandalism, using the theory that it was a direct and natural consequence of the trespassing. Since then, trial dates for Cameron Laurendeau, Gabriella Ripley-Phipps, Brent Adams and Franklin Alcantara have been postponed and pushed back multiple times as the wheels of justice continue to spin. Along the way, the case has been fraught with controversy, confusion and complications.
Defense attorney Briggs calls the situation “Kafka-esque,” saying the duration of the case has kept her client and the other defendants in a state of continued limbo. Since the prosecution began, “I’ve conceived, gone through pregnancy and birthed a baby,” she says.
Estimates vary wildly when it comes to how many people entered the building during the three-day occupation, anywhere from a few dozen to more than a hundred, many of them at a dance party. But casual observers might have noticed T-shirts saying “I Was in the Building: Support the Santa Cruz 11” around town.
The prosecution has been complicated by the lack of evidence directly linking any of the defendants to the vandalism.
Activists entered 75 River St. on the afternoon of Nov. 30, 2011 and clashed with riot gear-clad Santa Cruz Police, who eventually retreated in favor of diplomatic discussions. Almost 72 hours later, the group left the building peacefully. No one was arrested at that time. The Police Department put together their case and submitted it, along with surveillance video and photographs, to the District Attorney’s Office for review. No charges were filed until February 2012.
Activists first entered the building after a march against foreclosures and the mortgage crisis, an event organized by Occupy Santa Cruz.
The group who entered eventually sent out a memo explaining that they were acting “autonomously and anonymously, but in solidarity with Occupy Santa Cruz.” They wanted to turn the vacant building into a community center.
Briggs’ client, Laurendeau, is one of the four who remains in limbo as the case continues to lag. At one point, Judge Burdick dismissed charges against him citing a lack of specific evidence but the District Attorney’s Office later refiled.
Briggs says that there is no direct evidence showing her client committed vandalism, and that the theory that vandalism was a natural and probable consequence of trespassing doesn’t hold water.
The case has also undergone cast changes. Assistant District Attorney Rebekah Young was initially in charge, an assignment she was given because of her previous experience in media, Lee’s office said at the time. But Young’s tenure with the case was tumultuous
as she drew increasing ire from defense attorneys who complained numerous times that she wasn’t providing them with discovery— meaning evidence—as specified.
After a preliminary hearing in January 2013 was finally held for Foster, Norse and Johnson, Burdick took the rare step of sanctioning Lee’s office $500 for its repeated delays in turning over evidence to the defense. He told prosecutor Young he was frustrated that he was hearing the same explanations repeatedly.
Shortly after, Young took a job as a television reporter in Texas, and the case was handed over to Peinado.
On appeal, the District Attorney’s Office acknowledged the delays in compliance, but argued it was due to unforeseen and unusual technical difficulties when it came to copying surveillance footage. The DA’s appeal also argued that Burdick gave the prosecution “inadequate opportunity to be heard, because the court didn’t allow the prosecutor to contest the lawfulness of the discovery order.” The appellate court flatly rejected that argument in April.
The District Attorney has filed motions to remove Judge Burdick on several occasions, claiming bias, but those have been overruled—most recently by a Santa Clara judge— for lack of evidence of any lack of impartiality.
Burdick has urged both sides to reach a resolution, and has commented numerous times in court about the case’s duration.
Briggs said she’s willing to work out a deal, but so far nothing offered has been acceptable to the defense. The same goes for the prosecution’s side, although Peinado couldn’t comment on specifics.
“We’ve discussed resolution,” he says. “At the end of the day, these people caused damage to someone else’s property and they need to be held responsible.”