Attorney Kevin Zeese discusses how the judge hearing Cecily McMillan’s case did not allow the defense to show images which would have proven that the activist was reacting to getting her breast grabbed.
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
So you may have heard of Occupy Wall Street activist Cecily McMillan. She was allegedly assaulted by a New York police officer on the six-month anniversary of the Occupy movement two years ago. That night, police moved in to clear the park and make arrests, and during the chaos, McMillan’s defense says that an officer grabbed her breast from behind, swung her around, and threw her to the ground. You can see here a picture of some of what her defense says were bruises from that night.
Now her trial has come to a close, and Cecily was found guilty of assaulting an officer, which is a felony. She faces up to seven years in prison.
Now joining us to get into this case and discuss more is an attorney, Kevin Zeese. He’s been following the case closely, and he’s one of the original organizers of the national occupation of Washington, D.C.
Thanks for joining us, Kevin.
KEVIN ZEESE, ORGANIZER, POPULARRESISTANCE.ORG: Happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
DESVARIEUX: So, Kevin, just quickly, what was your reaction to the verdict?
ZEESE: Disappointment, severe disappointment. Worry for Cecily. And not totally surprised, because the judge in the case was very aggressive on the side of the prosecutor throughout the case, pretrial and trial. And so it wasn’t totally surprising that it turned out the way it did. But, really, disappointment.
And, also, thinking about the context of our times, you know, with the police abuse all of the country—I saw—the same say that I saw her conviction, I saw a tape of in Albuquerque City Council meeting where the citizens came in and took over the council meeting, so angry about police abuse. The same day also, articles about the Supreme Court refusing to hear the Hedges case against the NDAA, you know, which allows military to hold people without charges.
So it’s a lot of these things coming together. It’s a real attack on dissent. But mostly I felt for Cecily.
DESVARIEUX: So you mentioned that the judge really wasn’t allowing the defense to show some really strong evidence that would have helped Cecily’s case. Can you speak little bit more about that?
ZEESE: Well, the judge, Judge Zweibel—and, you know, I looked him up before I wrote about this case. And one of the first things you see when you look him up is he’s a prosecutor in robes. So we know where his bias is.
And you saw in some of the pretrial motions one of the key issues was getting to use the personnel file of the police officer involved, Grantley Bovell, and the judge refused to allow that. He only allowed a small portion that was before the jury, which was about his fixing tickets in the Bronx as part of the Bronx ticket-fixing scandal, which many—that should have undermined his ethics right there, but I guess that wasn’t enough for the jury. But there’s more in his history of police abuse. In fact, that same night, there was a guy who had his head hit against the ground by Bovell, and he was in court, and [he was ready to testify about that]. The judge wouldn’t let that in. But he wouldn’t go into the personnel files and let the defense see any other kind of reprimands he’s said, any other kind of problems he’s had. He’s facing a number of—at least two lawsuits for abusing citizens. And so none of that got in before the jury, so the jury didn’t hear any of that.
Then, throughout the trial, whenever the government would make an objection, it was upheld. The judge agreed with the government whenever they said they object to that, they object to that question, that videotape, whatever, that line of questioning. But whenever the defense made an objection, it was almost always overruled. He always denied the defense. In fact, at one point, Marty Stoler, the defense lawyer, said, you know, what’s going on here? You always believe what the prosecutor says; you never believe what I say. And so it was pretty evident. And people in the courtroom were Tweeting out about how the judge is just obviously against Cecily the whole way through.
And my hope was that the jury would see that. And sometimes you get a reverse reaction and the jury says, oh, boy, this judge is making it impossible. What’s going on here? This is, a railroading. But that didn’t work with this jury, that didn’t come across with this jury, and so the jury allowed it to go the way it was.
And so it was a very hard case for the defense to present their defense. There was no good videotape. That was one of the big problems. The only videotape that was had was after the breast grabbing, the alleged breast-grabbing, which—people saw pictures of her breast bruised with fingerprints on them. But they did have videotape of her hitting him.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And that videotape, Kevin, ’cause some people are going to see that and say, at the end of the day, she did hit an officer, she committed a crime, and, you know, just because you have—.
ZEESE: Well, it’s not a crime.
DESVARIEUX: It’s not a crime? Okay.
ZEESE: If you hit someone, you need to have criminal intent.
DESVARIEUX: You need to have criminal intent. Okay.
ZEESE: You have to intend to commit a crime. What she—looks like what she did, from the evidence, is that she reacted, and just someone grabbed her from behind, she didn’t know who it was, and she reacted to push him off her. That’s not criminal intent. And so that’s not necessarily a crime, if it really was just her reaction without her thinking about I’m going to attack this officer. So that’s not—that’s the key issue. There was no real denial of her hitting Officer Bovell. The question was: did she do it intentionally with criminal intent, or was it just a kind of reaction?
DESVARIEUX: Cecily’s story sort of ties into a lot of, I think, Occupy protesters who came forward saying that the way the police reacted to them was very aggressive. Can you speak to that a little bit? What were some of your experiences?
ZEESE: Well, especially in New York that was true in the beginning. In fact, I would credit the police aggressiveness as helping Occupy take off. I mean, there were two key incidents early in Occupy Wall Street in New York. One was in the first weekend. After they’d [spent] a week down, they had a weekend protest. They were marching to Union Square. Police separated the crowd, arrested some people. There were some women behind some orange mesh, and a police officer with a white shirt, a white-collar cop, went over and pepper sprayed these women for no reason. It was, you know, nonviolent protesters being abused by a police officer. He tried to deny it. They said the women were doing something. But there were, like, six cameras from people’s telephones that caught it all on camera, and you can see they did nothing wrong. You can even see one of the blue-collar cops saying, I can’t believe he just pepper sprayed her. And, you know, the media coverage of that really sided with the women who were pepper sprayed and against the cop, who’s now faced all sorts of discipline issues because of that. And that really helped to spark the movement.
The second thing that sparked the movement was when the police kind of directed the protesters into the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge rather than on the sideways, and 700 people were arrested that day, kettled on the bridge. Once they got onto the bridge, the police closed them off and closed them off and, you know—
DESVARIEUX: Yeah, I remember that day.
ZEESE: —arrested hundreds of people.
And you saw these similar kinds of incidents in other cities. Some cities have a long reputation of police abuse. Oakland, for example, has a terrible reputation of a police force that’s out of control. They’ve been under federal court orders and they’ve been monitored by federal judges. And during Occupy, they were very aggressive. And there’ve been lots and lots of settlements, both in New York and Oakland, on behalf of Occupiers who were abused.
Other police—I think the D.C. police used a different strategy. They’d been sued multiple times in the late 1900s, in the early part of this century, and they’ve had some pretty big judgments against them. They’ve been more cautious. And I think they’ve learned that a soft-pillow approach is better: unless the protesters give the police a justification that the public will agree with, they take a soft-pillow approach and allow the protesters to do they want to do. And that makes it actually harder for us to grow. We get less media attention. People get less sympathy for us. You know, they’re less aware of us. The only times—really, the times when the police got aggressive in D.C. was when the public started to turn against Occupy. And if occupiers went a little bit over the line—and nothing ever really seriously violent or anything happened in the Occupy in Washington, D.C. But, you know, enough of a justification, the police could then go ahead and be a little bit more aggressive. Then you saw that. But pretty much the police didn’t take that approach in D.C.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s go back to Cecily’s case. What can we expect next for her? What’s going on?
ZEESE: Well, she’s in jail right now. After she was found guilty, the judge did what he called stepping her back, stepped her back into prison. She’s at Rikers Island. And the next sentence: they’re sentencing her on the 19th.
Pretrial, the judge said to Cecily that if she didn’t take the plea bargain, she’d get a longer sentence after her trial. Now, a longer sentence, you know what that’s going to mean. It could be up to seven years. The plea bargain that was offered was she had to plead to a felony. She didn’t want to plead to a felony, ’cause she didn’t think she did anything. But she would get probation. So, longer than probation. Okay, we’ll see what that could be—you know, time served, it could be a year, it could be much longer. And we don’t know what’s going to happen.
Now, Judge Zweibel with all is pretty much a prosecutor’s judge. We don’t know what the prosecutor’s going to ask for, either, you know, whether or not the prosecutor requests a long sentence or recognizes that she’s already had two years of stress from this and going through a very difficult trial, and now spending, you know, multiple weeks in prison. Maybe that’s enough to satisfy the prosecutor. We’ll see. This case shouldn’t have been prosecuted. I think the district attorney, Cy Vance, made a gigantic error in prosecuting this case. They got a conviction, but they only got a conviction ’cause they had a judge who was very much on the side of the prosecutor and really maneuvered the jury in that direction. That’s a real sad reality. And it’s—unfortunately, it’s all too common in U.S. justice, because you look at who becomes judges, it’s often prosecutors, often corporate lawyers. It’s very rarely a defense lawyer or a civil rights lawyer or a consumer lawyer. It’s usually a prosecutor or a corporate lawyer who becomes a judge.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. We’re going to certainly keep track of this case. And we’d love to have you back on to give us an update. Thank you so much for joining us in the studio.
ZEESE: Happy to do it. Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.