Four people were thrown in Federal prison and into solitary confinement. Three were repeatedly taken out and put back into solitary in an attempt to break them - not because of an imminent threat; not to solve a heinous crime; but for refusing to answer a prosecutor's questions in front of a grand jury about the political beliefs of their friends.
This story has a "happy" ending. All four are out of prison, three after "only" five months of hell - they could have been in prison and in and out of solitary confinement for another year. They may, however, still face criminal charges, and could theoretically be arrested at any time.
How did this happen in
the land of the free our police state?
It began on May Day, 2012 when the door to the Federal Courthouse in Seattle was damaged during a protest. That triggered an investigation by Federal agents and a Federal grand jury, apparently into those known to have associated with the perpetrators and their alleged associates (one of whom was caught and prosecuted).
The Seattle grand jury originally issued subpoenas... in July, when the FBI and the Joint Terrorist Task Force broke down the door to Plante's home with warrants seeking computers, phones, black clothing and "anarchist literature."The grand jury started investigating ... well, we don't really know what they began investigating, because no one who is doing the investigating will say. But it has something to do with May Day, vandalism, anarchists and a circle of people to which these four people were somehow connected.
What we do know is that prosecutors subpoenaed Katherine Olejnik, Matthew Duran, Lean-Lynne Plante, and Maddy Pfeiffer to testify, despite the fact that none of them were in or anywhere near Seattle on May 1st, 2012. Each of them refused to answer, stating that targeting a group of "suspected" anarchists and asking about their political beliefs using the power of a grand jury was nothing but a McCarthyist witch hunt and in violation of their 1st, 4th and 5th amendment rights.
Those claims were dismissed by the judge, Richard A. Jones. In early October, 2012
Portland resident Leah-Lynn Plante spent the first of what could be more than 500 nights in prison for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury about people she might know who might have been involved with the political vandalism in Seattle on May Day.Each of the four was granted immunity from prosecution, so that their testimony could only be used to implicate others, not themselves - thereby rending a claim of 5th amendment privilege null and void. But the truth is this is just a (very, very nasty) tactic used by prosecutors, not a real protection in exchange for testimony. Why? Because if person A is granted immunity and is forced to answer questions which could implicate person B, and person B is granted immunity and forced to answer questions which could implicate person A, then for all practical purposes there is no such thing as immunity when two people who know each other are summoned. Prosecutors can, in effect, form a circular firing squad.
Jenn Kaplan, an attorney who represented Olejnik... ((noted)) "Theoretically, the grand jury serves an important function as a jury of peers to find probable cause," she said, "instead of the US Attorney using it to indict anyone at will without having to publicly demonstrate why to anybody."At best each person is facing a prisoner's dilemma, but in fact it it worse than that: the punishment for not testifying may be far worse than the punishment for whatever crime may be being investigated...
((However)) The system has become, she said, "a constitutional bypass around the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, allowing the government access to evidence they wouldn't otherwise have. It is also a useful tool to intimidate people, creating a chilling effect on political activism. If simply knowing someone who might be suspected of political vandalism puts you at risk of a subpoena and 18 months in jail, it gives you a strong disincentive to associate with such people."
She also cited an article in a Northwestern University law journal about the history of grand juries that states:The fundamental principles of free association and political freedom under the First Amendment, coupled with the historic right against self-incrimination codified in the Fifth Amendment, establish a "political right of silence." This right should bar the government from compelling cooperation with the grand jury under threat of imprisonment in an investigation involving political beliefs, activities, and associations.
The only federal defendant to be sentenced for a May Day related crime so far - damaging a door of a federal courthouse during the smashup - was arrested in early May and sentenced, in mid-June, to time served.Or, as Jenn Kaplan put it
Which brings up a pointed question: Why was the only federally identified May Day vandal sentenced to time served (about a month), while people granted immunity from prosecution - Plante says government attorneys don't dispute that she wasn't even in Seattle on May Day - are looking down the barrel of 18 months in federal custody? Why is a person who might know something about a crime, but who steadfastly insists she has her right to remain silent, facing more severe punishment (about 18 times more severe) than the person who was sentenced for actually committing that crime?
... it is far too drastic to bring someone before a grand jury just because that someone might know someone who might have committed an act of vandalism.The fate of the four Grand Jury resisters:
Leah-Lynne Plante was imprisoned on October 10th, 2011, and then released on October 17, 2012 after first being put into solitary confinement. It's not clear exactly what led to her release, whether she 'broke' and answered prosecutors' questions or whether she was released because of the publicity her imprisonment and solitary confinement was causing. (See here for more speculation.) In her tumblr account of these events before she was incarcerated she stated
I have suffered with severe depression and PTSD for many years. These are now much worse and new things trigger me. For a while after the raid, I was in a constant state of panic and I could barely eat. Every time someone knocked on the door, every time I heard any sort of loud sound in my house, my heart sank and I thought "they've come for me."Matthew Duran was imprisoned on September 13th, 2012, and his friend Katherine Olejnik joined him in prison on September 27th, both for contempt.
Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle, which is coordinating the grand jury probe, said the order to incarcerate the three was merely an attempt, under civil contempt proceedings, to compel them to answer questions they are required by law to answer.Uh huh. "Merely" an attempt.
On February 27th, after five months of random assignments into solitary confinement and out again, they were ordered released by the same judge who sent them to prison for contempt. The whole point of imprisoning them was to coerce them to testify, but the judge concluded it was having no effect, even strengthening their resolve, and based on various legal precedents felt he had no choice but to release them.
On this record, the court concludes that there is no substantial likelihood that continued confinement would coerce Ms. Olejnik or Mr. Duran to testify. Although they remain in contempt of court, the court finds no basis for their continued confinement.
Katie & Matt
But if the judge hadn't been as "reasonable" as he was, they could have remained imprisoned and subject to arbitrary solitary confinement punishments for another year, until the Grand Jury was scheduled to be depaneled.
Maddy Pfeifer (image right), called before the grand jury later than were Plante, Duran and Olejnik and imprisoned in November, was removed from solitary at the end of February and was finally released on April 11th under a similar order by the same judge.
All of them remain open to criminal prosecution for the crime of refusing to testify. As noted above, their imprisonment so far was a CIVIL matter, simply an attempt to coerce them to testify. The fact that they refused to testify is a criminal offense.
Where Have All the Civil Liberties Gone?
This case raises harrowing questions, some of which you may have already formulated on your own:
- Who decided these people should be hauled in front of a grand jury (since they weren't even in Seattle when the vandalism crimes were committed)?The questions around solitary confinement weigh most on my mind. Apparently arbitrary and vindictive, putting people into solitary confinement who have not been convicted of any crime is even worse than putting people into solitary who have been sentenced to prison terms (although confining people in solitary for up to twenty-eight years, as California has done, is truly beyond despicable).
- Who decided the three (plus a fourth, Leah-Lynn Plante, who was released several months ago) should be placed in solitary confinement, the most punitive thing that our legal system can legally inflict on a person, short of execution?
- What was the reason for placing them in solitary? (For example: Did they break a rule? Were they fighting with other inmates? Were they a demonstrable threat to themselves or others? Were they being punished for their political beliefs? Or were they subjected to a condition the UN has described as "torture" just for kicks?)
In his groundbreaking report on solitary confinement, ((UN Special Rapporteur on Torture)) Juan Mendez concluded that after as little as 15 days in solitary confinement, some of the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible. Such "prolonged" solitary confinement, he says, amounts to torture prohibited by the Convention.There should be no place in our society for such power and obvious abuse of power. What exactly is the difference between the psychological torture of capricious solitary confinement and, say, hauling someone off at random for a bout of physical torture?
Let us not forget that these were, at the core, political prisoners. Katie and Matt were interviewed after their release.
"It was made very clear from the beginning," Olejnik went on to say, "That they were using us to try to get information as part of a fishing expedition. We were being forced to help them create some kind of web or map of political organizers, rather than investigating any political, alleged crime. I think that they used May Day as an excuse. They saw it as something they could claim an investigation for. In reality it was just something that they wanted to use to find out who was organizing in certain types of politics in the Northwest."Recall that the subpoenas specifically were in search of "black clothing" and "anarchist literature." not bomb making material or arms caches. Anarchists have become the 2010's replacement for the communists of the 1950's, a target so villified that it takes exceptional courage to even assert that they might have some rights, and being associated with one of "them" in any way might well be dangerous. It is probably just a matter of time before another Congressional "Un-American activities" committee is formed and asks
"I'm completely speculating here," Matt told me, "but I think it's completely possible that because there's something successful happening here, not necessarily just with anarchism, but with organizing in general, that the hammer has to come down. It's completely and entirely possible that this was a retaliatory strike back over something that was successful."
"Are you now or have you ever been a (non)member of the (unorganized) Anarchist Party?"You may now go back to your placid existence, safe in the knowledge that Federal agents will never be coming after you. Unless, that is, you have some 'Stop the Keystone Pipeline' literature in your house. Or you know someone who thinks Bradley Manning should be free. Or you have an email from Anonymous in your inbox. Or a friend who wears black.
Maddy Pfeiffer image: jesuskristeva
Katie & Matt image: Not attributed. A commenter below says a 'Brian Duran' who may or may not be the brother of Matthew Duran created this image.
Leah-Lynne Plante, Judge & Jury image: I've lost the source of this. Can't find it on Google Images. A commenter below says Robert Ullman created this image.