In the matter of The People v. Wells Fargo the jury has found 12 Occupy Philadelphia protesters, arrested in November 2011 for a sit-in against the banks’ predatory lending practices and mafia-like policies, not guilty.
One of the only Occupy-related trials in the country to be argued before a jury, Tuesday also marked the first civil disobedience free speech case in recent Philadelphia memory. Defendants included a non-profit housing counselor, a Wells Fargo mortgage holder, a local teacher, an activist who participated in Civil Rights era struggles, and Temple and Penn graduate students.
During testimony, they pointed to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission’s report on Wells Fargo’s prejudicial lending practices and investigations by the Pennsylvania State Auditor General’s Office to draw connections between Wells Fargo’s profiteering and the defunding of Philadelphia's communities and school district.
The group was defended by seven local lawyers working pro bono: Leo Mulvihill, Jr., Marni Snyder, Paul Hetznecker, Mike Lee, Michael Coard, Larry Krasner, and Jon Feinberg.
“Today the people of Philadelphia defended the First Amendment,” said Defense Attorney Marni Snyder, one of seven lawyers who volunteered to represent the protestors. “We sent a clear message to the District Attorney’s Office: prosecute the real criminals at Wells Fargo. These twelve defendants stand on the side of justice.”
“If this jury has found us innocent then it must mean that Wells Fargo is guilty,” said an elated 71-year-old Willard R. Johnson, one of the 12 on trial.
Judge Nina N. Wright Padilla asked all 12 of the acquitted to approach so she could shake their hands. ”I hope you continue your work in a law-abiding way,” said Padilla. “I must say you are the most affable group of defendants I’ve ever come across.”
The protesters were on trial with charges of defiant trespass and conspiracy to commit defiant trespass, stemming from a sit-in conducted at Wells Fargo in the center city on November 18, 2011. During the action they "foreclosed" upon Wells Fargo, a bank known to engage in racist predatory lending, unjust foreclosures, selling and profiting from bad loans to the Philadelphia school district, and playing a significant role in orchestrating the mortgage debt crisis which contributed to the country's current recession.
The seven pro bono defense attorneys argued in court that the protesters had a 1st Amendment right to conduct the sit-in in the bank lobby, and to demand to speak to someone from Wells Fargo who could change the unfair policies. They also argued the protesters were compelled to speak out and that they refused to leave the bank lobby to prevent further harm being done to the public, known as the justification defense.
The greater harm they were referring to was the continuation of unlawful business practices that led the city to pay out millions to Wells Fargo, and the continuing home foreclosures happening to families all over the country.
The group of lawyers, defendants and their supporters returned to court several times to hear questions from the jury which required an oral response from the judge in front of all parties. First, the jury had asked to be excused because of its inability to come to a unanimous decision, as no one willing to change his or her vote.
But the judge instructed them to further deliberate. The jury came back and asked a question about the "justification defense," an indication that they might be considering nullification of the misdemeanor charges of criminal conspiracy and defiant trespassing.
The defense successfully argued that the sit-in was protected by the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantee. They also contended the protest served a “greater good” for society that outweighed the trespass charge.