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Protesters march slowly through halls of justice

Saturday, March 22, 2003

By Jonathan D. Silver and Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Thursday's anti-war protest lasted only three hours, but the legal system was still grappling well into last night with the paperwork resulting from the 122 arrests it spawned after turning violent.

"I don't think we have any more protesters," District Justice Mary Grace Boyle announced in the cramped confines of city Night Court at 8:45 p.m.

She was mistaken. Between court records and a tally kept by a small group of protesters who congregated outside the Municipal Courts Building, it appeared that about 90 people had been arraigned by that time, meaning there were another 30 still waiting to go before the judge.

They remained in the Allegheny County Jail, most of them facing charges of failure to disperse and obstructing public passage.

Several people unaccustomed to dealing with the legal system became irate when they learned it would be several hours before they could bail a loved one out of jail.

"I think they figured they're trying to teach the people who were arrested a lesson," fumed Christine Cunic, 26, of Braddock Hills, who was waiting to bail out her youngest brother, Anthony, 18.

Behind her, about 30 young protesters who had either been released from custody or were providing "jail support" milled about, greeting the newly freed with cheers and hugs.

The day in court began much as it ended, with teenagers and 20-somethings -- many of them experiencing their first brush with the legal system -- politely answering questions about their addresses, graduation dates and sources of income for the district justice to determine what bond was warranted.

One tall man, dressed in all green, wanted to know yesterday morning if he was admitting guilt by signing a form for City Magistrate Moira Harrington.

"What you're signing is your get-out-of-jail-free card," Harrington told him. "Did you ever play Monopoly? You're not admitting guilt."

Those arraigned early yesterday were being released on their own recognizance to await hearings in City Court next week.

However, that changed during City Court's afternoon session, when District Justice Eugene Zielmanski began imposing bonds of 10 percent of $10,000. That led the public defender on duty to protest to Common Pleas Court that everyone should be released on their own recognizance. A court order set the tone: protesters to be released on their own recognizance would have to prove legal residency in Pennsylvania.

Zielmanski set bond for 24 protesters. It was unclear how many of them were able to post the bond and win their release last night.

One woman, who would not give her name, showed up to bail out her son last night and voiced displeasure at the disparate treatment of protesters on the bond issue.

Although her son called her from jail at 4 p.m. asking her to bail him out, she said she was told she wouldn't be able to put up the money until 11 p.m. because his arraignment information hadn't yet shown up in the court's computer system.

"It just doesn't make sense that some people got out without paying and others have to wait," she said.

One arrest -- that of a 19-year-old observer from the American Civil Liberties Union -- drew a protest yesterday from the local ACLU chapter's legal director.

"I think that [police] just lost their patience. The march may have gone on long enough to really try their patience," said Witold Walczak.

Walczak said two witnesses watched as four officers threw the observer, a college student, face-first onto the sidewalk at Smithfield Street and Liberty Avenue.

Walczak, who declined to identify the woman, said she was wearing a white T-shirt that clearly identified her as an observer for the ACLU. Authorities were notified that there would be ACLU observers in a March 20 letter to acting Police Chief Charles Moffatt.

In a letter dated yesterday, Walczak told Moffatt that the woman was complying with police orders to move farther back on a sidewalk.

"We will make a determination whether to take legal action on her behalf after further investigation," Walczak wrote.

The maximum penalty the protesters face is six to 12 months in prison. Typically, magistrates handle misdemeanor charges arising from demonstrations as summary offenses, punishable by a $300 fine, 90 days in jail, or both, Healey said.

As the arraignments continued, Patrick Corr of West View stood patiently in the Municipal Courts Building lobby.

An Irishman who emigrated to the United States in 1981, Corr was waiting for his 18-year-old son, Morgan Patrick Corr, to be released.

Corr said he witnessed civil disobedience firsthand in his hometown of Dungannon, the city where Northern Ireland's civil rights movement began in the late 1960s. He said he was delighted his son joined the demonstration and figures that spending a night in jail is part of the 18-year-old high school senior's education.

"He's opposed to the war. He thinks it's evil for a country as large as this to go after the little guy," Corr said.

The large number of arrests swamped City Court employees.

Nancy Galvach, Allegheny County's deputy special courts administrator, called in additional magistrates yesterday to arraign the demonstrators.

"It was just a temporary crisis. The system was inundated and we're getting through the process as quickly as we can," said William T. Simmons, former chief city magistrate.

Some city magistrates' positions recently were eliminated as part of a statewide reorganization of district courts.

Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962. Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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