Thursday, June 7, 2012

Occupy Asheville Trial: Citizen Journalist Lisa Landis "Not Guilty!"

Attorney Ben Scales with a victorious Lisa Landis 

“Homefree" In More Ways Than One!

by Clare Hanrahan

“It was a half a cigarette verdict,” Lisa Landis joked, with a wide grin and obvious relief outside the Buncombe County Courthouse in Asheville, North Carolina.  Landis had earlier been called back to the courtroom less than fifteen minutes after the jury left to deliberate her case. She was on trial for impeding traffic, a misdemeanor with potential for 20 days jail time.  Landis maintained her innocence and contends she was targeted for prosecution because she is a critic of Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore, and was well known as a public media producer on the free-speech forum UR-TV.

 “I’ve never seen a not guilty that fast,” said defense attorney Ben Scales. Even the court bailiff was pleased, winking at Landis as she left the courtroom and telling Scales, “I’m glad people are standing up for what they believe in.” Jury members in the elevator and leaving the courthouse were also in high spirits and glad to get out into the cool, bright mountain day. “I’ve still got time to go fishing,” one said.

Landis, a 53 year old homeless grandmother, is “homefree” as she calls her current circumstance.  She hitched rides eight times from Florida to Asheville and back to make her numerous court appearances.  “Flying a sign” is how she characterized her travel. “If I didn’t have faith, I couldn’t make it,” she said of the ordeal. “I was falsely arrested.”

It was a heartening two-day trial despite a surprising lack of supportive presence from among Asheville’s Occupy movement and the more than 150 persons who occupied the streets during the Nov. 2 march and rally for which Lisa faced charges. In addition to court officials and attorneys, only three others were present for the trial.

Landis appealed an April 26, 2012, conviction in the Buncombe County District Court. She had been filming a march and rally on November 2, 2012, in which Occupy Asheville participants took to the streets in solidarity with Occupy Oakland’s Scott Olsen, a two-time Iraq war veteran seriously wounded by a police projectile during an Oakland street demonstration.

Landis, a former producer with the now-dismantled community television station UR-TV had been picked up three days after the Nov. 2 rally on three warrants, charged with Resist, Delay and Obstruct, Impeding the Flow of Traffic and Unlawful Assembly. Prosecutors dropped two of the charges prior to trial. Police testimony in her earlier trial revealed that downtown officers were ordered by supervisors to review surveillance video and pick out individuals they knew.  Eleven persons, including this writer serving as a National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer at the time, were selected for prosecution based on police surveillance video and arrested on warrants.

A humorous moment occurred the first day of trial when Asheville’s familiar flying nun, who accompanies the La Zoom tourist bus, was called for jury duty.  During the jury interview process, he quipped “I might have a problem because I regularly impede traffic.”  (S)he was dismissed from jury duty. Another in the pool, a professed anti-war activist, remained on the jury as did a student videographer.  “I looked at the jury and I knew I had at least one,” the defense attorney said later. The final jury consisted of four women, and eight men, who appeared to range from their mid 20s to mid 50s in age.

Defense Attorney Ben Scales, in what he later revealed was his first ever solo jury trial, has appeared in court numerous times in the past few months to offer pro-bono defense for Occupy Asheville participants.  He characterized his clients as “the real heroes,” but he articulately championed Landis’ case and his closing arguments clearly moved the jury to return the just verdict of not guilty. It was an important victory for civil liberties and the freedom of citizen journalists to cover public dissent without fear of prosecution.
This writer was not present during the first day of trial where, according to Scales, Asheville police sergeant Brown testified that he ordered the streets blocked by police cars “in the interest of public safety,” as the Nov. 2 marchers moved through the streets. Police surveillance video and video by citizen journalist Landis was introduced as evidence, and Occupy Asheville chants, including “Give the police a raise!” once again rang through the courtroom.

On the first day of Landis’ trial, former UR-TV producer Larry Grillo, who arrived at the Buncombe County courthouse at 8:30 a.m. to support Landis was misdirected to the wrong courtroom, then misdirected again to a jury room where he was held until 11:30 a.m.  “I was trying to get to her trial, but I was pushed into a jury room,” he said.  I thought the trial was on the fifth floor, but they told me “There’s nothing going on down there.”  He returned for the final day to witness Landis’ victory in court.

Lisa Landis arrives for trial Buncombe County Superior Court
Asheville Legal Observer Sunny Rawls attended both days, observing from a front pew in the ornate Courtroom No. 5. All but two of the 18 mahogany pews in the magnificent courtroom were vacant.  Tall windows draped with deep green velvet curtains trimmed in gold braid with gold tasseled tiebacks let in the morning light and fluted flat columns gave the walls a stately feel, hung with oil portraits of judges who presided in years past. The ornate ceiling was decorated elaborately and a wide balcony in the rear could accommodate another fifty observers had they realized the first amendment import of this case.
Judge Gary Gavenus presided from a mahogany dais with a large round seal of North Carolina behind him.  His courtroom was a model of due process and his interactions with the prosecution and defense attorneys and his instructions to the jury were detailed and informative, a fine civics lesson for those of us who seldom find ourselves before a judge.  

Assistant District Attorney Steen prosecuted the case, calling the charges against Landis “a simple, straightforward case,” and asked the jury to convict her on the charge of impeding traffic.  “She stood in the street,” he charged. “Traffic could not flow because of her actions.”

Defense Attorney Scales, in his closing argument, emphasized the “willful” element of the charge. “Impeding of traffic must be willful,” he said, citing a case law that he said he had discovered at 6:30 a.m. the day of the trial. “The Defendant must intend to impede traffic….If you find that she did not willfully impede traffic, you must find her not guilty.”  

“Lisa Landis did not want to get arrested. She did not participate in civil disobedience. She was trying to observe the expression of free speech engaged in by the marchers. …Ms. Landis is a citizen journalist, sympathetic to the movement.  She was totally caught off guard when she was arrested. Not at the event, but days later. 

If we allow our police to do that, when are they coming after the rest of us?” 
At 11:30 a.m. on June 7, 2012, twelve jurors in Buncombe County Superior Court returned a not guilty verdict for citizen journalist Lisa Landis.  Homefree!  Justice was served today in Buncombe County.

Landis says she will file a civil suit for false arrest on three false charges.

 Photo by Clare Hanrahan (with camera generously gifted by Anne Gietzen to this citizen journalist!)


  1. Thank you Clare for this well written article. If Not for Citizen Journalists, how would we get the real story? Local media was quick to broadcast my guilt, but WLOS and Citizen Times were not interested in doing a story on my Not Guilty verdict.

    I do have to be honest and admit that I am 54 not 53...LOL

    They say that home is where the heart is so where ever I am, I am home!

    I have been in hiding since December 16, 2011. Knowing how I was picked up and arrested, I feared for my life. Staying with family and friends I have been on the move constantly. Until the corruption that is being covered up is revealed and those held accountable, I do not feel safe in Asheville.

    When our community communicates that is what brings unity. Occupy Asheville had a large amount of people step forward to create change. We Are Not Alone, there are many who work together who would never have said hello to each other before Occupy started. Many good things have been learned from each other.

    One of the things I learned was how to fly a sign. I was always afraid to stick out my thumb to hitch a ride, but holding a sign with my destination brought great rewards... A New Way To Travel and Meet More Good People in this World... but then that is a whole story in it's self!!!

  2. P.S. Have to admit...I have more respect for the Criminal Justice system because of this Judge. I consider him an Honorable man on the bench. Hard Ass... but Honorable!

    and the jury.... THANK YOU for seeing my innocence!

    YUP... I Will Hold Those Accountable For Targeting and Falsely arresting me.
    Yup... I Am A Bitch with Ballz!

  3. Congratulations to you both, Ms. Landis and Ms. Hanrahan. Y'all are two ballsy gals who make the rest of us proud and give us courage in the fight for the soul of our country.

  4. It seems clear to me that these are trials on the facts and not the law, and as such are essentially apolitical. Nobody is arguing that they should be able to block traffic, only that they did not actually do so, as it had already been blocked by police and perhaps by demonstrators. So this is simply a trial on the facts like any other.


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