‘Medicaid 23′ protesters’ mass trial gets under way

Jury selection in a mass trial in which the defendants include 23 ministers from Kansas City and across Missouri began this morning in Cole County District Court.

The defendants are accused of trespassing in the state Capitol building and obstructing Senate business two years ago. On May 6, 2014, the clergy, some in their 70s, led a group of 300, chanting, “This is the people’s house,” into the Senate gallery to protest the Legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid coverage for an estimated 300,000 poor Missourians. Singing hymns, praying and chanting slogans such as “Expand Medicaid,” “Do justice,” “Love mercy,” and “Defend the poor,” the protesters disrupted Senate deliberations for two hours before Capitol police arrived and arrested the religious leaders.

The clergy, who are being called the Medicaid 23, were charged en masse on August 8, 2014, in Cole County District Court with trespassing and obstructing government operations. If found guilty, each faces six months in jail and a $500 fine.

Word of the trial was quickly spreading last week across social media, especially on Facebook pages on which activists were posting invitations to the public to attend the trial.

According to briefs filed by the defendants’ Jefferson City attorneys, Rod Chapel and Jay Barnes:

  • The “case is unprecedented in the post-Civil Rights Era” because, Chapel and Barnes write, they “could not find a single reported case since 1963 in which a citizen was prosecuted for disrupting a legislative function in a state capitol for peacefully chanting or reciting Bible verses.” Indeed, the attorneys believe the arrests violate a landmark Supreme Court ruling, according to their brief.
  • They also write in the brief that the trespassing charge is unusual because the Senate gallery is open to the general public. The state so far has failed to specify any statue that makes the reverends’ “continued stay in the Senate gallery ‘unlawful.’ ”
  • The state’s trespassing law also requires that the state prove that it provided “notice against trespassing” to the defendants; so far, the state has not shown that this was done, the attorneys write.
  • The defendants’ attorneys say in another brief, filed last Wednesday, that a mass trial violates the ministers’ constitutional rights to a fair trial, making it impossible for each to confront the evidence and testimony against them, and preventing the jury “from making a reliable judgment about guilt or innocence.”

Cole County Prosecutor Mark A. Richardson did not return The Pitch‘s phone calls last week to answer questions about the case, including why he is prosecuting it, why it has taken two years for the case to come to trial and why he is asking that the offenders serve time in jail.

Chapel and Barnes, who also is a Republican state representative from Cole County, said Friday they were restricting their comments to the legal briefs they had filed in the case. They also said they had asked their clients not to talk about the case until the end of the three-day trial on Wednesday.

The case is being heard by Cole County District Judge Daniel Green, who has garnered headlines with a reputation for toughness.

In a high-profile case this past June, Rodney Lincoln, 71, who many believe has been wrongfully imprisoned for more than 30 years for murder, asked for a furlough to attend the funeral of his granddaughter. Green denied that request and, on the day of the funeral, Green ruled that he was denying Lincoln’s appeal for a new trial based on new evidence. (The state appellate court is now considering an appeal filed by the Midwest Innocence Project on behalf of Lincoln.)

In the Medicaid 23 case, the defendants 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 include the Rev. Vernon P. Howard, president of the SCLC of Greater Kansas City board of directors and one of the main leaders; 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. 

The ministers said at the time that they decided to protest the state Legislature because they had a moral duty to support Medicaid, and the Legislature’s stance against expanding Medicaid was unacceptable. 

“We were from many cities, many faiths, many races,” said the Rev. Fields in an email he sent to an acquaintance after being arrested, which was posted online. “But we had one single vision: to see dignity at the center of public life in Missouri.”

He continued: “Today in Missouri, a married mother of two who makes more than $4,239 per year is considered ‘too rich’ to receive assistance with health. As a result, people are living sicker and dying younger for the first time in the history of the state.”

Fields said Capitol police “arrested and respectfully removed us.” He added: “For the hour we were detained, I heard the powerful melody of hundreds singing ‘Amazing Grace’ in the hallway outside the doors.”

Capitol police took their names and photographs, and they were allowed to leave, Mike O’Connell, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, told the Columbia Daily Tribune in 2014. O’Connell also told the Tribune that it would be up to Richardson to decide whether formal charges would be filed.

In a recent email from the Rev. Howard to parishioners and friends about today’s trial, he wrote that the prosecuting attorney had “refused formal requests to have the case dismissed” for two years.

The Medicaid-expansion issue came about through the 2010 Affordable Care Act. States could accept federal support to increase the health-care coverage of working adults by 138 percent of the federal poverty guideline, up to $16,104 a year, and, for families, $32,913 a year, according to news articles. The brunt of the cost would be shouldered by the federal government, which would pay $1.5 billion the first year. In subsequent years, the state would pay an increasing amount until it reached a payment of 10 percent of the $1.5 billion in 2021.

But Missouri legislators have strongly opposed Medicaid expansion, saying the state can’t afford it.

A brief filed by the defense attorneys contends that the last time a citizen was charged with obstructing or disrupting a legislative function was a South Carolina case in which 187 people were arrested. They were arrested after police asked them to disperse and they continued “loudly singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and other patriotic and religious songs, while stamping their feet and clapping their hands.” They were charged with obstructing government operations, and convicted.

In a landmark case, however, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned those convictions, saying the arrests had violated the protesters’ First Amendment rights, according to a legal brief by Chapel and Barnes.

The Supreme Court explained in its ruling:

“The circumstances in this case reflect an exercise of these basic constitutional rights in their most pristine and classic form. The petitioners felt aggrieved by laws of South Carolina which allegedly ‘prohibited Negro privileges in this State.’…There was no violence or threat of violence on their part, or on the part of any member of the crowd watching them.”

The attorneys write that their case has many similarities to Edwards vs. South Carolina. That the reverends are “alleged to have violated the Senate rules (as opposed to laws) is not sufficient to support the filing of a criminal information and charge,” they write. 

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