Craig's team makes case to change plea

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 27, 2007 - 12:13 AM

The Idaho senator had intended to resign Sunday, but now he hints that he will wait for the judge's ruling on changing his plea.

The county's bomb-sniffing Labrador retrievers, Bunny and Wesley, swept the courthouse. Extra security and metal detectors were installed.

Then, before dozens of local and national news media representatives and enough onlookers to fill the 100-seat courtroom, lawyer Billy Martin made his case to allow Sen. Larry Craig to plead not guilty and to take his disorderly conduct arrest to a jury.

Hennepin County District Judge Charles Porter Jr. said that he wouldn't rule on the request until at least the end of next week, apparently extending Craig's stay on Capitol Hill in Washington.

"For now, I will continue my work in the U.S. Senate for Idaho," Craig said in a statement. He made no mention of his earlier plans to resign effective Sunday.

"No matter what Senator Craig attempted to do to make this go away, this is not a crime," Martin told reporters at a news conference after the one-hour hearing.

Prosecutor Christopher Renz said Craig knew he was doing something wrong because he cried "No!" when the undercover officer flashed his badge under the restroom stall divider in the Lindbergh terminal at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Craig's attempt to withdraw his guilty plea brought a whirl of activity to the court's Southdale Service Center in Edina.

About a half-dozen TV satellite trucks and tents were set up in a corner of the parking lot. A couple of pro-Craig demonstrators came in costume and carried signs. One read: "Fight terrorists, not toe-tappers" and "Next time pee, don't plea." The signs directed readers to the website www.freesenatorcraig.com.

Costumes and signs

Jason Gabbert, of Apple Valley, was dressed as an airport police officer. Anthony Wright attempted to dress as Craig. They said they brought toilets for a full-on demonstration, but were told to put them away by security officers. The two say they are political centrists, but Gabbert said Craig "shouldn't have been arrested. There was no evidence to make an arrest."

Court spokeswoman Nancy Peters said, "This is the biggest national coverage the courts have had that I've seen in at least the past 10 years."

Inside the courtroom, Porter, an experienced judge comfortable in the spotlight, sipped from a coffee mug. He ran a no-nonsense hearing, starting 15 minutes early because everyone was seated and ready.

What's disorderly conduct?

Martin insisted that Craig's actions at the airport on June 11 didn't constitute the crime of disorderly conduct. "We should not have a system of justice that allows a citizen to enter a plea of guilty for expediency to something that is not a crime," Martin argued.

He called Craig's behavior in the men's room -- tapping and bumping his foot, stroking his hand along the stall divider and peering into an occupied stall -- innocuous because there was no touching.

Craig pleaded guilty by mail in August and paid a fine.

Porter interrupted Martin often. The judge noted that most disorderly-conduct crimes do not involve contact.

Martin said, "You should have either touching or words or a combination of the two."

But Porter described a hypothetical scene in which he could walk out from behind the bench, flailing his fists at Martin. That would be a non-touching, nonverbal event that would still arouse alarm. "I don't have to intend to make you mad," Porter said.

Craig issues a statement

Craig, R-Idaho, did not attend the hearing. Martin, a well-known criminal defense lawyer who also represents suspended Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, said he advised the senator against attending because his appearance wasn't necessary.

The senator issued a written statement from his Washington office. "Today was a major step in the legal effort to clear my name," Craig said.

Renz, prosecutor for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, argued that Craig's attempt to withdraw his plea was flawed because it was filed too late and that he committed the crime by engaging in "a series of invasions into the stall space next to him." He said the defense was trying to "direct the court's attention to each of the individual actions."

Renz noted that Craig's tapping, bumping, and swiping was preceded by two minutes of gazing into the stall occupied by Sgt. Dave Karsnia. He said the behavior fits the standard for disorderly conduct because it tended to arouse alarm.

'I did the following: ...'

He said the facts to which Craig pleaded do amount to a crime and the senator knew it because it read, "I did the following: Engaged in conduct which I knew or should have known tended to arouse alarm or resentment of others."

Renz took issue with the lapse of time between Craig's guilty plea in early August and his motion to withdraw, filed in September, saying he waited for the consequences to play out.

At one point, Martin told Porter that he wanted a chance to prove Craig's innocence at trial. The judge replied, "We don't do that here. We give guilty or not guilty. Florida looks at innocence."

Craig had announced earlier in the month that he intended to resign from the Senate Sunday if the guilty plea hadn't been withdrawn by then, but Wednesday's events indicated that he intends to retain his seat at least until Porter hands down a ruling.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

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