When a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury on Tuesday acquitted all 12 Occupy Philadelphia protesters arrested in a 2011 Center City bank sit-in, it was a personal vindication for the defendants.
For the seven lawyers who represented the 12 for 16 months -- free of charge -- it was a professional vindication of the concept of “pro bono” representation and the work of what became known as the Occupy Philadelphia Legal Collective.
The Occupy demonstrators were charged with conspiracy and defiant trespass in the Nov. 18, 2011 sit-in inside a Wells Fargo Bank branch at 17th and Market Streets in Center City.
The sit-in was to draw attention to what Occupy called Wells Fargo’s “racist predatory lending” policies that caused a disproportionately large number of home foreclosures in black neighborhoods.
It was a classic confrontation between Occupy’s First Amendment free-speech rights and Wells Fargo’s private property rights and last June Philadelphia Municipal Court President Judge Marsha H. Neifield found all 12 guilty of trespass and fined each $500 and court costs.
One month later, Wells Fargo, the nation’s largest mortgage lender, agreed to pay $175 million to settle allegations by the U.S. Justice Department that independent brokers originating its loans charged higher fees and rates to minority borrowers than they did to white borrowers with similar credit risks.
Though convicted, the Occupy protesters still had the right under Philadelphia court rules to reverse Neifield’s verdict in a new Common Pleas Court trial. On Tuesday, a Common Pleas Court jury acquitted all 12 of all charges after the defense lawyers argued that protests’ “greater good for society” outweighed the charge of defiant trespass on private property.
The seven defense lawyers who won the reversal included three veteran Center City criminal/civil rights lawyers: Lawrence S. Krasner, Paul J. Hetznecker and Jonathan Feinberg. Also on board was Michael L. Coard, another veteran criminal defense lawyer known outside the courtroom for leading the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, the group founded in 2002 to ensure that a memorial to enslaved Africans was part of the President’s House site at Independence National Historical Park.
Three others – Marni Snyder, Michael Lee and Leo M. Mulvihill Jr. – were relative newcomers to the Philadelphia legal scene. Snyder has been a lawyer in Center City since 2006. But for Lee, a lawyer for three years and member of the first graduating class at Drexel University’s law school and Mulvihill, a lawyer since 2010 who graduated from Drexel’s second law school class, the Occupy case was their first jury trial.
The seven lawyers and a half-dozen others represented about 150 Occupy Philadelphia demonstrators arrested in late 2011 in various encampments and sit-ins around Center City.
“One-thousand percent acquittals!” said Jody Dodd, a member and founder of the legal collective, referring to its record after Tuesday’s verdicts.
Dodd, a long-time social activist, was a national coordinator for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom when she met Krasner in 2000 at a legal collective formed to represent demonstrators arrested at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.
Krasner subsequently hired Dodd as his legal assistant. But when the Occupy movement began building in 2011, Dodd said she began rebuilding the legal collective to prepare for the inevitable conflict with authorities.
Dodd said she works for the legal collective on her own, sometimes enlisting Krasner, Hetznecker or other lawyers for one of its pro bono projects and recruiting recently minted lawyers who want to join the effort.
With the Occupy cases now out of the Philadelphia court system, Dodd said the group has renamed itself the “Up Against the Law Legal Collective” and is waiting for the next demonstration.
“We’re like the scouts,” Dodd said. “We like to be prepared.”