22 of Medicaid 23 convicted, despite prosecutor’s questionable case

A Cole County jury today recommended that 22 members of the Medicaid 23 not serve jail time for trespassing but instead pay a fine of up to $500 each for a protest inside the Missouri Capitol in 2014.

The 23 clergy members were arrested after 15 minutes of the peaceful protest, which included singing, praying and chanting to express their concerns over the Legislature’s failure to expand Medicaid to more than 300,000 poor Missourians.

On Wednesday afternoon, the jury deliberated three to four hours and found the clergy guilty of criminal trespass but not guilty of charges of disrupting government operations. The clergy, some in their 70s, had faced up to six months in jail for the trespassing charge. (One of the Medicaid 23 could not make the trial and will face a jury later.)

On Thursday, in front of a standing-room-only crowd, Cole County District Court Judge Daniel Green took the jury’s recommendations under advisement.

Representing the defendants were attorneys Nimrod Chapel and Jay Barnes; Barnes is also a Republican state legislator who supported Medicaid expansion. Chapel tells The Pitch that they already are planning their next step, which will be to file a motion for a new trial or a new judgment. That motion must be filed within 15 days. If the motion fails, an appeal is likely. “I think there are certainly grounds for an appeal,” Chapel says.

Chapel says the Constitution provides the right for people to be able to express themselves even in publicly owned building such as the Capitol. “Everybody has to have the right to speak about the issues that concern them,” he says. “Without that, I don’t know what kind of America we would have here.”

Cole County Prosecutor Mark Richardson was not available for comment. Some of his comments during the trial, however, sparked anger among the activists.

A recurring theme in his case was that the protesters’ singing and chanting had interrupted Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat, who was speaking on the floor of the Senate Chambers when the protest occurred. Richardson portrayed Nasheed as a victim who was unable to continue speaking because of the disturbance.

But Richardson never put Nasheed on the stand, so the jury did not hear her testimony.

When contacted in St. Louis, Nasheed expressed anger that she had been portrayed as a victim and that Richardson had never called her to testify.

“Let me tell you, I was taken aback when I heard that,” Nasheed tells The Pitch. “The real victims are the 300,000 people who are without health care…and the hospitals that are being forced to close.

“He was trying to pit African-Americans against African-Americans,” Nasheed adds. “I’m appalled he would even play that game.”

Nasheed says she was a civil rights activist before becoming a politician and that she has herself protested for minority inclusion. “I was the activist who laid out on the highway,” she says. “I’ve gone to jail for civil disobedience. If I saw them [the Medicaid 23] today, I would tell them, ‘Have no despair. Keep fighting the good fight.’”

Chapel says that, without evidence from Nasheed, the prosecutor should not have portrayed Nasheed as a “victim” to the jury. “That was not in evidence,” Chapel says. “That is something we can use in an appeal.”

Indeed, no senators testified for the prosecution to explain whether they had been harmed or disturbed by the protest.

And no Capitol police officer testified for the prosecution that they had given notice to the protesters to stop or to leave the building.

But two senators, including Sen. Kurt Schaefer, testified for the defense.

And when Richardson questioned Schaefer, he may have been surprised by the response, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch news column.

“I don’t think anyone broke the law,” Schaefer said, according to the story. “As a lawmaker, it’s your job to listen to them.”

Schaefer recently has been criticized for pushing through legislation privatizing the majority of Medicaid services.

Chapel tells The Pitch that Richardson also upset the activists at one point by confusing Nasheed with another legislator, Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, also a Democrat from the St. Louis area. Richardson said Nasheed had run unsuccessfully for Congress and that her chances had been harmed by protesters in Ferguson; it was actually Chappelle-Nadal who had the failed bid for Congress.

“He couldn’t tell Sen. Nasheed from Sen. Chappelle,” Chapel says. “He just got it wrong.”

Laura Swinford, executive director of Progress Missouri in Jefferson City, a nonprofit advocacy organization, says many people who were in the courtroom listening to the testimony didn’t think that the jury would convict the reverends. “I think people were really shocked by the verdict,” she says. “I am shocked. When the jury came out, they didn’t make contact with anyone. I don’t know what the hell was going on in there.”

The Rev. Vernon P. Howard, president of the SCLC of Greater Kansas City board of directors and one of the Medicaid 23’s leaders, tells The Pitch that the group’s attorneys have asked the reverends to refrain from commenting until the sentencing.

Defendants in the Medicaid 23 case represent numerous church and activist groups, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP, Missouri Faith Voices, and Communities Creating Opportunity. A few of the defendants from the Kansas City area included Howard; the Rev. Wallace Hartsfeld II, of the Metropolitan Baptist Church, who is on the CCO’s board of directors; the Rev. Lloyd D, Fields, pastor of the Gilgal Baptist Bible Church; Ester Holzendorf, an ordained evangelical minister; the Rev. Chaunia Chandler, with the St. Mark UCC-Western Association; the Rev. Sam Mann; and the Rev. Susan McCann, with the Grace Episcopal Church in Liberty. 

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