A Philadelphia judge on Wednesday acquitted 10 people charged with disorderly conduct at a raucous protest at a Lawncrest town-hall meeting in March with District Attorney Seth Williams and Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey.
The 10 had gone to the March 19 meeting in response to the shooting death of Brandon Tate-Brown at the hands of police during an early-morning traffic stop late last year in Mayfair.
Municipal Court Judge Joyce O. Eubanks found the 10 not guilty after a two-hour nonjury trial, ruling that prosecutors had not proved the protesters' motive purely disruptive.
Despite warnings from court personnel - and defense lawyers - Eubanks' ruling triggered a roar of cheers from the 10 and their courtroom supporters that continued as they moved through the hallways and outside the Criminal Justice Center.
"Free speech is alive and well in the cradle of liberty, thank God," said defense lawyer Lawrence S. Krasner, who represented five defendants. "We need more talk and less violence from everyone, including the police."
Krasner's cocounsel, Michael Coard, compared the incident to the civil rights protests led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"The only way change happens is through protest," Coard added.
Both defense counsels noted that just Tuesday, the police and the District Attorney's Office released the names of the two officers involved in the shooting death of Tate-Brown, 25, of Frankford, and video of the incident in the 6600 block of Frankford Avenue. Both were demands of protesters at the Lawncrest meeting.
The 10 charged were among about 20 protesters who converged on a crowded meeting about 7 p.m. March 19 at Lawncrest Rec Center on Rising Sun Avenue.
The meeting was hosted by State Rep. Mark Cohen (D., Phila.), featuring Ramsey and Williams, to field questions about community policing and crime in the Lower Northeast.
But it also followed by hours Williams' announcement that no criminal charges would be filed against the two officers in Tate-Brown's death.
Police Lt. Joseph O'Brien of the police Civil Affairs Unit testified that the meeting had just begun when demonstrators, who had been milling at the back of the hall, moved up front and packed a three-foot-wide space between the first row of seats and the table where Cohen, Ramsey, and Williams sat.
Assistant District Attorneys Christina Pastrana and Jeffrey Fair played a nine-minute video of the meeting that showed protesters bearing signs marching directly to the table, loudly shouting "Shame on you," "Pig," and, "Who killed Brandon Tate-Brown?"
O'Brien said he and three of his officers moved between the officials and the protesters and, when several melees erupted, ordered the protesters to move back. That order could not be heard over the screams on the video, and the meeting degenerated as metal folding chairs were pushed and toppled.
O'Brien identified all 10 as among those at the front table, and said he ordered them back because emotions were volatile and he feared violence.
Two witnesses testified that they were assaulted by protesters. Lt. Michael Young, a narcotics officer detailed to the meeting, identified Megan Malachi, 33, as the woman who punched him in the chest as he tried to arrest one of her two sisters.
Another witness, Gregory Bucceroni, who said he was a city community support specialist, said he was helping an elderly woman who fell during the pushing and shoving. Bucceroni said he was hit in the back with a chair and then confronted by protester Carmen Spoto, 22, who he said "pushed me, spat on me, and called me a KKK cop."
Young's and Bucceroni's testimony was attacked by Krasner, who noted that neither pressed assault charges against Malachi or Spoto, and that Bucceroni's allegations were not in his police statements.
None of the 10 testified in their defense.
In addition to Spoto and Malachi, acquitted were Caleb Gallus, 30; Asa Khalif, also known as Earl Pittman, 44; Durmel Coleman, 23; Morgan Malachi, 32; Mallori Malachi, 27; Joseph Quinn, also known as Quinn Dougherty, 22; Scott Williams, 26; and Rufus Farmer, 32.
Khalif is a cousin of Tate-Brown and founding president of Racial Unity USA.
Also attending the trial was Tate-Brown's mother, Tanya Dickerson-Brown, who congratulated the demonstrators afterward.
"I supported them; I supported and believe in their First Amendment rights," she said. "I'm glad the charges are dropped."