In Controversial Trial, Homeless Found Guilty of Illegal Camping
Sketch by Karen Seed
Three people who were contesting Denver’s urban-camping ban were found guilty on Wednesday, April 5, at the Lindsey-Flanigan courthouse. The defendants — Jerry Burton, Randy Russell and Terese Howard — were determined to have unlawfully camped on November 28, 2016, and to have interfered with police operations at one location. All three were sentenced with court-ordered probation for one year and between twenty and forty hours of community service.
The case challenged Denver’s unauthorized-camping ordinance, which has been divisive ever since Denver City Council approved it in 2012.
At the sentencing on Wednesday, Howard, who is with the organization Denver Homeless Out Loud, gave an impassioned speech before the court.
“This case wasn’t just about the three of us; thousands of other folks that are affected by this law are out on the streets,” she said. “The jury came in not wanting to convict us, but they were forced to."
Howard was referring, in part, to jury selection the day before, when at least five potential jurors were dismissed after saying that they found the camping ban to be unjust and immoral.
Despite ample evidence provided by the city's prosecutors that the defendants had violated the ordinance and had “camped” at specific locations and times, the jury took three hours to decide on their verdict. Jurors sent multiple questions to Judge Kerri Lombardi during their deliberations.
According to the defendants’ attorney, Jason Flores-Williams, one of the questions read: “If they’re found guilty, can we pay their fines?”
In the end, though, the jury heeded Judge Lombardi’s and the city prosecutors’ requests to check their social commentary at the door and focus on applying the law as it’s written.
“These are honestly quite sad and tragic cases for multiple reasons,” admitted Judge Lombardi after the verdict was read. But she suggested that an alternate ruling by the jury would have amounted to jury nullification — when a verdict goes contrary to the evidence, in some cases because a jury disagrees with the law.
It seemed like most people in the gallery were disappointed with the outcome. At one point, when Judge Lombardi left the courtroom, some members of the public said things like, “Justice has died a little today," “This is fucked up,” “Shame!,” and “How are the prosecutors going to sleep tonight?”
Four sheriff’s deputies were stationed inside the courtroom to maintain order, as passions ran high throughout the trial.
Defendants Russell, Howard and Burton.
During cross-examinations on Wednesday, Burton and Russell maintained that they weren’t “camping.”
“I didn’t have no campfire, and I had no s’mores to cook,” said Russell on the stand. “I was trying to survive.”
Burton had similar sentiments. “When I was a boy scout, we called it 'camping.' When I was a Marine, we called it 'bivouacking.' That night [November 28], I wasn’t camping. I was surviving.”
Russell and Burton’s insistence on using the word “surviving” led to an awkward moment when prosecutors employed the defendants' term and asked whether they were aware that it was unlawful to survive in Denver.
“Are you saying it’s illegal to survive?!” Russell asked from the stand.
At closing arguments, Flores-Williams attempted to cast doubt on police officers’ testimonies and rehashed some of the inconsistencies of their enforcement of the camping ban. He also pointed out that the city’s prosecutors had objected 45 times during the trial in comparison to his three objections. “We’re just trying to get you the truth here,” he said to the jury.
For their part, prosecutors subtly characterized the camping activities of the defendants — especially by Howard, who is not homeless but is an advocate with Denver Homeless Out Loud — as acts of protest against the law.
Howard, Burton and Russell were the only three individuals, the city pointed out, who were cited on November 28 despite many others camping because they had refused to comply with officers after many warnings.
Messages scrawled outside of the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse on Wednesday.
They were also guilty of “interference,” the prosecutors said, because their non-compliance with officers significantly slowed down the officers’ enforcement of the camping ban.
Once the jury had delivered its verdict, Flores-Williams told the courtroom that it was his “absolute honor” to represent his clients. “They are the soul of our country, and they give me hope,” he said.
At sentencing, the defendants thanked the judge and jury but said that they did not regret camping or contesting the charges.
Howard vowed that she’ll continue efforts against Denver’s camping ban by lobbying the city council to repeal the controversial law and by lobbying the Colorado Legislature to pass the “Right to Rest Act,” which was introduced on Monday and enforces the right to rest and move freely in public spaces.
“The Right to Rest Act says that this will never happen again,” Howard told the courtroom. “We’re going to continue to fight.”