The first three defendants to stand trial for demonstrating on Interstate 94 last summer in the wake of Philando Castile’s death pleaded guilty Tuesday.
Adam Burch, Zachary Kolodziej and Elise Sommers each pleaded guilty to misdemeanor public nuisance and unlawful assembly.
They said afterward that they had proceeded to trial as an act of solidarity with Castile’s cousin, Louis Hunter, who was the only protester that night to be charged with a felony. The Carver County attorney’s office, which handled the case while Ramsey County pursued a case against the officer who killed Castile, dropped felony riot charges against Hunter last week, saying that there was insufficient evidence to proceed.
Several protesters charged in connection with the July 9, 2016, demonstration signed a pledge to refuse a plea deal until Hunter’s case was dropped. The first three of 21 went to trial Tuesday.
“I don’t think we ever came into the courtroom with the intention that our individual cases would be dismissed or found not guilty,” said Burch, 29, of Minneapolis.
Burch, Kolodziej and Sommers were also given identical sentences. All three cases, which were tried separately, were heard before Ramsey County District Judge G. Tony Atwal Tuesday morning.
Atwal sentenced each to 30 days in jail but stayed the sentence in lieu of a year of probation. He also ordered them to pay a $100 fine and $86 in fees and costs. Each defendant received credit for their time in jail.
Given a chance to address the court, the three stood up for their actions, calling it a necessary reaction to a system that unfairly targeted black people and people of color.
“When I protest, I’m fighting for the world I want to live in, the Minnesota I want to live in,” said Sommers, 21, a pre-K to early elementary teacher from Minneapolis. “Tranquility on the freeway is not possible for people of color in Minnesota.”
Assistant St. Paul City Attorney Stephen Christie told the judge that citizens have a right to assemble and protest, but not at the risk of endangering others, such as drivers on I-94 that night.
About 300 protesters entered the freeway at Lexington Avenue and blocked traffic in both directions. Some threw rocks and other items at police. “Public safety was at risk in a serious way,” Christie said.
Atwal told each defendant that progress could only occur by “meeting in the middle,” and that access to public space has limitations, especially when public safety is at risk.
The city attorney’s office originally charged 47 cases. A total of 29 defendants have pleaded guilty. Eighteen cases are heading to trial Aug. 21, Oct. 2 and 30, and Nov. 27.
Then-St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted in June for fatally shooting Castile last year during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights.