A day after riot charges were dismissed against 38 protesters arrested in St. Paul for blockading Interstate 94 last July, many of them vowed Thursday to reject a proposed plea agreement and take the remaining misdemeanor charges to trial.
The mood was ebullient as about 70 defendants jammed into a small courtroom on the 16th floor of the Ramsey County Courthouse, representing the contingent arrested during demonstrations on the freeway and in front of the governor's residence in the wake of Philando Castile's shooting death by a St. Anthony police officer. A decision issued late Wednesday by Ramsey County District Judge G. Tony Atwal threw out the gross misdemeanor third-degree riot charges, saying that they did not hold up because some of those charged were merely present at a protest where others were throwing rocks or bottles.
"We were not involved in any of that conduct nor do we support it," said Jane Conrad, 55, of Richmond, Minn. "Our values are that of Dr. Martin Luther King."
Rachel Mueller, 27, of Minneapolis, sat outside the courtroom waiting for the hearing to begin. She said that more than 20 of the I-94 protesters plan to go to trial rather than accept plea agreements for two remaining misdemeanor charges, of being a public nuisance and participating in an unlawful assembly.
"It's a great win for us," Mueller said of Wednesday's ruling. "To get [St. Anthony Police] Officer Jeronimo Yanez charged and to have the riot charges dropped is huge. It shows protesting worked."
During the night of July 9, about 300 protesters entered the freeway at Lexington Avenue and marched eastward, blocking traffic in both directions. Some threw rocks, cement chunks and other items at law enforcement.
Scores of police officers in riot gear used smoke bombs, and eventually tear gas and pepper spray, to disperse the crowd. Police closed the freeway for nearly five hours between downtown St. Paul and Hwy. 280.
Authorities said at least 16 officers were injured. Forty-six people were charged with third-degree riot, along with misdemeanor public nuisance and unlawful assembly.
Deputy City Attorney Laura Pietan said the one of the options offered to protesters involves admitting to a petty misdemeanor with no jail time, with a potential fine.
"I think across the board the city is being very reasonable and generous," she said.
Jordan Kushner, one of several attorneys for the demonstrators, said that plea offers were "somewhat generous" in the arrests at the governor's residence — but only if the demonstrators were guilty.
"But everyone I've spoken to is adamant that they were wrongfully arrested," he said, because they were not given a chance to leave.
Some demonstrators are pleading guilty, however. Two involved in the I-94 protest pleaded guilty through their attorneys Thursday, bringing to eight the number who have pleaded in the freeway incident. They had 30-day jail sentences stayed, accepted $50 fines, and agreed to pay $86 in court costs. Six others had already pleaded guilty.
Louis B. Hunter of St. Louis Park was the only person charged with a felony, for allegedly throwing rocks and construction debris at police. Hunter was charged with two counts of second-degree riot armed with a dangerous weapon. Officers arrested Hunter after seeing him throw rocks and debris at officers, according to the criminal complaint. Hunter has denied throwing any objects.
Randy Furst 612-673-4224 Twitter: @randyfurst