Bonnie Block, currently on trial in Mauston, Wisconsin for trespassing at an Air Force base where she was handing out anti-drone flyers, has been denied the right to present a political defense for her actions. She and Jim Murphy, both part of the Wisconsin Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars, have been protesting monthly for more than three years at Volk Field, a Wisconsin Air National Guard base “where they train operators to pilot Shadow drones with cameras to do surveillance and ‘target acquisition’ so that the Predator and Reaper drones (remotely piloted from other US military bases) can drop Hellfire missiles on presumed militants in multiple countries.” The two were arrested last May, when they “went on a bus tour of Volk Field as part of an open house to which the public was invited.” As Block and Joy First described it on PopularResistance:
When the bus stopped at a museum on the base, they got off and tried to hand out flyers to others who were on the tour. They were told to stop handing out their “propaganda” and leave the base. Since they had come by the tour bus they had no way leaving on their own and yet they were arrested for trespassing and taken to the Juneau County Jail.
Murphy was found guilty in a bench trial last September and ordered to pay a fine. Block asked for a jury trial. In response, the Juneau County District Attorney filed a Motion in Limine, a request to prohibit the defense from using certain arguments, a common procedure when a jury will be hearing a case against protesters. It asked:
…that Bonnie be prohibited from making “any argument that is known to be false or irrelevant to the issues before the Court” including among other things the policies of the US Government, International laws, the Charter or certain Resolutions of the United Nations, or moral or ethical strictures believed in by the defendant. She was also prohibited from commenting in any way “that her prosecution was a violation of any Constitutional or International Right or privilege.” Of course, the important matters of the motion revolved around whether Bonnie could raise Constitutional free speech issues or provide any of the reasons she has for opposing drone warfare and handing out a leaflet raising four questions about drones.
The judge granted those key parts of the motion. He also forbade Block from making any reference to jury nullification, the idea that jurors can find a defendant not guilty even if they broke the law on the grounds that they don’t believe what the defendant did was really a crime.
In arguing for her right to speak about drones, the US Constitution, or why she was handing out leaflets, Bonnie said that she needs to be able to tell the whole truth for there to be a fair trial. Otherwise the jury could presume she was on the base for no good reason. Prohibiting this in a pretrial order prevents her from presenting a defense for her action. She argued that the prosecutor can object during the trial if something is improper and the judge can make a ruling at that point. Bonnie said that these pretrial motions are overbroad and will have a chilling effect because she will have to wonder if something inadvertent will result in her being found in contempt.
The judge responded saying that the case was about trespassing and that was the only issue that could be mentioned.
If Bonnie talked about drones or international law or the US Constitution, it could mislead the jury. He went on to say that there is no way they will get through the trial without referencing the leaflet that Bonnie and Jim were attempting to distribute, but neither side, nor any witness, can say anything about the actual content of that leaflet. If these rules are not followed the judge will grant a mistrial and impose sanctions.