14 Aero protesters found guilty

Judge gives jail time to protesters of Aero Contractors in Smithfield -- unless they pay fines and serve probation

Staff WriterJanuary 6, 2006 

A District Court judge convicted 14 defendants of trespassing Thursday in connection with a November anti-torture protest at Aero Contractors Ltd. in Smithfield.

The protesters pleaded not guilty, but admitted during their joint trial that they had intentionally trespassed onto the premises of Aero Contractors at the Johnston County Airport on the morning of Nov. 18. They argued, however, that their crime was justified as an act of civil disobedience.

They said they were trying to draw attention to Smithfield-based Aero Contractors for its alleged role in operating planes used in shuttling CIA suspects to countries where they could be interrogated and possibly tortured. The company was also recently sued by the American Civil Liberty Union in the case of Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen accused of terrorism who claims he was tortured after being abducted on an Aero-operated plane. After five months in captivity, he was released without being charged.

"We acted in order to prevent a crime ... and the role Johnston County played in this crime," said Bernadette O'Neill, a 17-year-old Cardinal Gibbons High School student and one of the defendants who represented themselves.

Johnston County has leased property to Aero Contractors since 1979. "As a Christian, my faith requires I take a moral stand," O'Neill said.

The protesters said they were trying to deliver "citizen indictments" against the company to Aero executives, county commissioners and airport officials. As the 14 were tried Thursday, other peace activists continued their delivery of similar "indictments" to the offices of Gov. Mike Easley and other state officials on the board of Global TransPark in Kinston, where Aero has leased hangar space for a 737 jet since about 2002.

Judge James B. Ethridge asked why the defendants did not mail a letter or use some other means to convey their message.

"Martin Luther King could have sent a letter, but that's not why we're honoring him next week," said Smithfield lawyer Michael Reece, who represented some of the defendants. "He stood up for what he believed even when it violated the letter of the law."

It was an unusual case for Smithfield's District Court, which typically handles such minor crimes as drunken driving, drug possession, false IDs or speeding tickets. District Attorney Tom Lock said the trial was the first instance of political protest he could recall in his almost 16 years in office. "I think it's more common in Wake County or Cumberland County where Fort Bragg's located," he said.

The defendants -- a mix of teachers, NCSU professors, retirees, students and Christian peace activists -- included eight from the Triangle, five from the St. Louis area and one from Chicago.

The defendants were mostly solemn in court, but occasionally lapsed into lighthearted moments and emotion-heavy statements.

"In general, as an officer of the law, would you pursue an investigation if allegations of a crime were made?" asked defendant Scott Langley, 29, a Catholic Worker House volunteer.

"Yes, sir," answered Detective Brandon Harris of the Johnston County Sheriff's Office. Harris had been among the officers who arrested the 14 protesters in November.

"Is there an investigation under way of Aero Contractors based on our allegations?" Langley asked.

"No, sir," the officer replied.

"Are you aware torture is a crime and is illegal under our constitution and international law?"

"Yes, sir," Harris said.

Langley later ventured: "Is it true that there is moonshine being made in Johnston County?"

The question was followed by a ripple of laughter, but no answer. Ethridge called for order in the courtroom, packed with more than 30 peace activists.

The defendants also brought a bit of academia and church to court, including two expert witnesses: Daniel Pollitt, a UNC-Chapel Hill law professor emeritus, and the Rev. W.W. Finlator, a longtime advocate of civil rights.

Pollitt, who taught labor law and was a president of North Carolina's ACLU during the turbulent 1960s, argued that their actions had been protected by the First Amendment, citing some sit-in cases and Jehovah's Witnesses who have been allowed to trespass as a matter of free speech.

"People write letters but they don't get answers, so they go sit at the Woolworth counter," Pollitt said.

It was a strange case in court, and an unusual protest in Johnston County, where roadside signs advertising collards, pecans and new subdivisions had rarely before been joined by picket signs. Still, both the trial and the arrests were characterized by amicable brushes with the law.

When protesters struck up with protest songs in November, sheriff's deputies joined in.

"We shall not be moved, like a tree," the protesters sang.

"Like a tree ..." Deputy Rodney Langdon echoed, trailing behind the protesters as they moved to get a better view on the other side of a fence as their friends were handcuffed.

Judge Ethridge said he understood the reasons they had felt compelled to act, but he had no choice under state law except to find the defendants guilty. He sentenced them to 10 to 20 days in jail, unless they paid $50 in fines and $110 in court costs and underwent a year of unsupervised probation.

The 14 defendants all appealed the decision. Their case will likely go to Superior Court in early summer, Reece said. But first, many will go today to protest at Aero Contractors' hangar at the Global TransPark in Kinston.

Staff writer Peggy Lim can be reached at 836-5799 or plim@newsobserver.com.

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