Amid cheers, hugs and prayerful song, 196 abortion protesters arrested during the first major Spring of Life confrontation last month in Amherst were freed Friday after they were convicted of a minor non-criminal violation but acquitted of criminal charges.
Town Justice Sam Maislin convicted the protesters of disorderly conduct after a brief non-jury trial, then sentenced them to time served.
He warned them that he could sentence them on the violation if they are arrested in Amherst again within the next year. Few worried about the warning, however. Many had already served the 15-day maximum sentence. And all were happy to be free.
"He did the best he could for us," said Rev. Jay Longacre of the Embarcadero Ministries in South Buffalo, who spent 24 days in the Erie County Holding Center. "I'm very happy with the way he handled it."
"I'm grateful. My clients are free," said attorney John Broderick. "I understood before (the trial) that this was going to happen."
Consequently, Broderick offered no defense at the trial, which heard testimony from police about the arrest of the anti-abortion demonstrators April 22 on charges of blocking a driveway at the office of Dr. Shalom Press at 2550 Sweet Home Road.
In groups of 25, the protesters knelt in the street outside the clinic before Amherst police arrested them. They were replaced by others.
By noon, police had filled six school buses with protesters. They were charged with disorderly conduct, a violation, or with resisting arrest, obstructing justice or trespass, all misdemeanors.
More than 600 people were arrested during the two-week Spring of Life demonstrations, 312 in Buffalo and the rest in Amherst. Two non-jury trials have been held so far in Buffalo, resulting in one conviction for non-criminal trespass and eight acquittals.
An anti-abortion leader who was not part of Friday's case in Amherst, the Rev. Robert L. Schenck of New Covenant Tabernacle in the Town of Tonawanda, said that while he was relieved by Maislin's decision, it would be "more disturbing as time goes on. There's been no crime committed here."
Glenn Murray, attorney for the Pro-Choice Network of Western New York,
saw the verdict as further confirmation of Operation Rescue's disregard for the law.
"The convictions, whether of a crime or a violation of the Penal Law, are proof of the pattern of illegal activity by Operation Rescue, before and during the Spring of Life," he said.
Mr. Schenck said he expects "more severe treatment" Aug. 6 when he and about 70 others go on trial before a jury and Amherst Town Justice Sherwood L. Bestry on criminal charges of trying to block Press' office May 1.
On Thursday night, Bestry refused an Operation Rescue motion to remove himself from the case. Operation Rescue attorneys said he was biased because his relatives had signed a pro-choice newspaper ad.
A packed courtroom erupted into cheers and song as Maislin announced his decision from the bench. The defendants hugged and kissed one another and friends as they left the courtroom. About 50 of them had been in jail since their arrest because they failed to post bail, which ranged from $500 to $1,000.
Anthony DelGrosso of Elkland, Pa., whose church paid his $500 bail, said that he did not expect to spend 15 days in jail when he joined the protest but that he would do it again.
His wife, Aggie, clutching a bouquet of spring flowers, met him for the ride home.
"God assigned us this task," he said. "We needed to see it through."