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City to drop July 4 case

SATURDAY, MAY 10, 2008

Five days after police videos from the July 4 protest surfaced just hours before trial, the city of Spokane announced it wants to dismiss criminal charges in the sole remaining case stemming from the Riverfront Park arrests.

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner and Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick insisted the video, as well as documents that came to light Wednesday, did not weaken the city’s case against 20-year-old Michael Lyons, whose trial was placed on hold this week as a judge contemplated whether to drop the charges because of the late disclosures.

Rather, they said in a statement released Friday evening, “it no longer makes sense to continue to try the patience of the court for misdemeanor charges.”

Defense lawyers in the case said it was about time.

“I think as soon as they found the tapes they should’ve dismissed the case,” said Frank Cikutovich, one of Lyons’ attorneys. He added that he didn’t know about the city’s decision until he heard it on the radio.

The decision to drop the charges against Lyons represents another strange twist in the saga that began when a group arguing for greater police oversight ended their march in Riverfront Park during last year’s Independence Day celebration.

Police, who received complaints from other people in the park, surrounded the group and eventually arrested one protester, Zach St. John. Police said St. John choked an officer, nearly causing the officer to black out; St. John denied that he assaulted the officer and instead insisted he was pushed to the ground and handcuffed when he demanded the officer’s badge number.

The rest of the demonstrators started shouting “Let him go,” as well as other chants and obscenities. Police said they ordered protesters to disperse, and when they didn’t, began arresting them.

The arrests divided the community between those supporting the police and those supporting the protesters’ right to free speech. It sparked other demonstrations, including a march to City Hall during a City Council meeting, and a public forum with Kirkpatrick. At one point, some 50 attorneys volunteered to represent the protesters for free.

Although 14 other adult protesters faced charges in the July 4 protest, Lyons was the only one who insisted on taking the case to trial. St. John was charged with felony assault but accepted a plea bargain for a misdemeanor; 13 others who were charged with misdemeanor trespass and failure to disperse accepted deferred prosecutions that will give them clear records if they stay out of trouble for a year.

Lyons’ trial was set to begin Monday afternoon. But that morning, the police sergeant helping City Prosecutor Jim Bledsoe prepare the case brought in video footage that he realized was not in the prosecution’s file. It had been shot by a unit separate from the arresting officers, by detectives attempting to gather intelligence on some of the organizers of the protest.

About 49 minutes of video, shot by three detectives, shows the protesters and their arrests from different angles. Much of the video quality is poor; it shows St. John being arrested but does not show him choking the officer. It also has the detectives joking about someone “getting into it” with protesters before any arrests occur and has one suggesting that another “hold my badge” so he could do something that can’t be determined from the audio.

Bledsoe called Lyons’ primary attorney, Ronnie Rae, who didn’t get a copy of the video until less than an hour before the trial was scheduled to start. District Judge Annette Plese agreed to a delay, and held a hearing on Wednesday to discuss whether the appearance of the video so late in the process was grounds for dismissal.

Rae said it was, citing a U.S. Supreme Court case that requires any evidence that shows the possible innocence of the defendant.

Bledsoe argued the videotape actually helped the city’s case, and as such wasn’t covered by the ruling or court rules for turning over exculpatory evidence. He contended the defense was merely trying to keep it away from the jury.

Plese was scheduled to rule Tuesday on the motion for a dismissal and Rae’s request for sanctions against the city.

On Friday, a prepared statement issued jointly by Kirkpatrick and Verner called the problems “inadvertent omissions in the prosecutor’s case.”

“I am disappointed we are unable to move forward and present our case in court,” Kirkpatrick said in the statement.

Verner said police acted professionally and with restraint during the demonstration: “Their actions were commendable on that day and I am sorry that we will not be able to proceed in court.”

Cikutovich said the city’s efforts to continue the case to trial would have been “a waste of time.” He said he will be talking with St. John, who was his client on the assault charge, about options for clearing his record, and attorneys for the other misdemeanor defendants may consider returning to court for their clients.

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