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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Arrest of Juror Rattles Stop-and-Frisk Trial

QUEENS, N.Y. (CN) - A judge refused to declare a mistrial in a stop-and-frisk protest case where one of the jurors was arrested in the courthouse.

The defendants are four of roughly 20 activists who wound up in handcuffs after a Nov. 19, 2011, protest outside the 103rd police precinct in Jamaica, Queens.

This neighborhood boasts a particularly high rate of black and Latino residents stopped by the police. Activists blame the New York City Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy for targeting minorities more often than white pedestrians.

Of more than 17,000 police stops in the 103rd precinct last year, only 378 involved white civilians, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Debra Sweet, director of the nonprofit group World Can't Wait, estimates that six activists arrested that day accepted plea deals in which the city would dismiss charges if the defendants were not arrested again for a year.

The remaining cases have been divided into multiple groups, she said.

Prosecutors decided to amp up the charges to two Class A misdemeanors, which carry a possible two-year prison sentence. The first of the defendant groups chose to be tried before a jury at the Queens County Branch of the New York City Criminal Court.

Preliminary motions took about a year, and the trial is now in its fourth week after facing interruptions from Hurricane Sandy and other events.

When the case convened on Thursday, 67-year-old juror Lois Schechter ended up in handcuffs after trying to retrieve a small Swiss Army knife that she had checked with security that morning.

Schechter said that she refused to leave the court without it after the guards handed her an empty plastic bag and told her to sign.

"I just started to scream and yell," Schechter told Courthouse News. "I was pushed across the lobby floor with my hands still in cuffs, my backpack still on."

Court officers held her for a half-hour inside the lobby's cramped holding cell, she added.

"I'm claustrophobic," Schechter said. "I was having palpitations."

Guards allegedly also refused to give the senior citizen a glass of water for her anti-stress medication and dry mouth.

She said they let her go at 5 p.m., with six summonses for minor violations.

The Queens District Attorney's Office has not returned a request for comment.

An attorney representing the stop-and-frisk activists told Courthouse News that he found the story alarming but did not witness the arrest.

"I've never seen anything like it," attorney Martin Stolar said. "It strikes me as a somewhat severe overreaction."

The nonprofit group Stop Mass Incarceration says that Schechter was the only juror picked for the trial who openly opposed stop-and-frisk policies.

She has now been excused from the case, along with a fellow juror who said she might be unable to put the incident out of her mind.

Two alternates filled their spots, enough for a six-member jury to deliver an eventual verdict, barring any other shake-ups.

Prosecutors moved for a mistrial, but Judge Gene Lopez shot that maneuver down Tuesday. Witness testimony neared completion that afternoon.

Though Lopez has said that Schechter can watch the trial out of sight of the jury, Schechter did not attend on Tuesday.

That morning, multimedia artist Jamel Mims told the court his account of last year's precinct protest.

A Boston College graduate, Mims studied Chinese hip-hop on a Fulbright scholarship in Beijing before he became a vocal opponent of stop-and-frisk policies back in New York.

Tuesday marked the second time Mims took the stand for civil disobedience.

In May, he defended standing in front of the Harlem's 28th Precinct on Oct. 21, 2011, with mixed results. A Manhattan judge convicted him and his fellow activists of disorderly conduct, with a sentence of community service.

This time, Mims hoped to convince the jury to reach a different conclusion about the similar demonstration in Queens.

Both cases hinge on whether the fact-finder believes the activists were trying to obstruct traffic coming in or out of the precinct.

When Judge Lopez asked whether Mims considered the demonstration's effect on the community, the young artist replied: "We were there with members of the community."

They were also there with Morgan Rhodewalt, an activist from Northampton, Mass., who testified that he drove more than three hours to participate in the protest.

Mims said that most of the activists nicknamed him "Roadblock" because they could not pronounce his last name.

"Don't quote me on that," Mims told the court.

"We are," Judge Lopez replied, indicating the stenographer.

Later that day, Rhodewalt testified that he heard vague police orders to leave, but he found them confusing because he said officers had opened a barricade welcoming them into that area.

"It sounded like an extreme jump from, 'Won't you come in?' ... to 'It's a violation,'" he said.

After hobbling toward the stand with a cane, 64-year-old activist Carl Dix testified that his knee injury proved that police granted him and his fellow activists access.

"Personally, I couldn't have jumped over the barricades because I have knees," Dix said, his voice trailing off.

Prosecutors struggled to keep politics outside the case.

Assistant District Attorney Briana Heymann brusquely objected after Dix mentioned the infamous police shooting of Sean Bell, who died from more than 50 gunshot wounds in Queens.

Judge Lopez sustained that one, and Dix was not allowed to mention it again that day.

Both sides are expected to deliver closing arguments on Wednesday.

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