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'Medicaid 23' convicted of trespassing in Missouri Senate

Protesters disrupt the Missouri Senate on May 6, 2016.
Courtesy, Missouri Senate

It's a split decision in the trial of the so-called "Medicaid 23," a group of religious leaders who staged a protest in the Missouri Senate more than two years ago over lawmakers' refusal to expand Medicaid.

Twenty-two members of the group were found guilty of trespassing for not leaving the Senate gallery when ordered to do so by Capitol police. But they were found not guilty of obstructing the operations of the Senate. The case of one other member will be decided later.

House Democrats are very unhappy with the trespassing convictions. Rep. Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City, chairs the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus:

"Under today's verdict, the right to peacefully protest and petition elected officials for a redress of grievances no longer exists in the Missouri Capitol. Under today's verdict, daring to challenge the powerful on behalf of the powerless with nothing more than prayer and song is a crime. This was a purely political prosecution that never should have been brought, and its result must be overturned on appeal if freedom is to be more than just a concept and constitutional rights mor than mere words on a page."

Conflicting arguments

Cole County prosecutor Mark Richardson argued that the group attempted to shut down the Senate and were deliberately seeking to be arrested. Capitol police chief Todd Hurt testified on Tuesday that someone representing the group approached Capitol police ahead of time.

Hurt said he was told "they were going to have a group that was part of a protest that wanted to be arrested that day (May 6, 2014), and that they were going to stage in an area (near) one of the (legislative) chambers. He didn't specifically tell me which gallery, but he more or less wanted us to be aware of it and be prepared for it."

Hurt also said he was told "some people that were going to get arrested as part of the demonstration … would have purple armbands on; (we) would know who they were because they were going to identify themselves with purple armbands."

Hurt also said that they were told that the 23 protesters would wait to be tapped on the shoulder by an officer, indicating that they were being arrested. Once that happened, each member of the purple-arm banded 23 would then allow themselves to be booked.

But when cross-examined by defense attorney Jay Barnes, Hurt said he could not specifically identify which police officers tapped which protester on the shoulder. None of the other police offers could specifically identify any of the Medicaid 23 in court Tuesday.

"It's been two and a half years," said Capitol police officer Deanne Bogg. "I'm not sure who exactly I tapped on the shoulder."

Bogg was recalled Wednesday by the prosecution, to view a videotape of the protesters in the Senate gallery that day. When asked if the protests, as shown in the video, stopped the Senate's actions, she said "Yes, it did."

Two state senators, however, disagreed when called to the stand by the defense. Both Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, and Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, testified that the singing and chanting from the protesters did not force the Senate to shut down.

Curls disagreed with the prosecution's argument, saying that none of the Medicaid 23 members was expecting to be arrested.

Schaefer pointed out that the protests began in the middle of a filibuster by Democrat Jamilah Nasheed of St. Louis.

"The purpose of a filibuster is for someone to keep talking so that all activity stops, and you can't get anything done," Schaefer said. "We were in the middle of that process when this occurred."

Richardson, also a Republican, pressed Schaefer on whether the protest disrupted the Senate's ability to function, and the exchange got a bit heated.

He asked, "Do you agree with me that the Senate was recessed early that day because of the disturbance in the Capitol?"

"I can't say that," Schaefer answered. "I can say we broke for lunch about the same time that we always do for committee meetings … you'd have to ask the president pro-tem that."

Richardson shot back, "Why can't you answer that?"

Schaefer said, "Because he's the one that calls when we take a break."

Richardson: "You were there, sir! You don't remember that day?"

Schaefer: "He just takes a break, and then we take a break! He doesn't tell us why; he just tells the person who (holds) the gavel."

Richardson: "You don't think anybody should be above the law, BUT, it's okay for these protesters to stop the Senate and trespass?"

Schaefer: "I don't think anybody broke the law."

His testimony for the defense shocked many of the defendants, since Schaefer is a staunch opponent of expanding Medicaid, and as chair of the Senate appropriations committee has blocked attempts at expansion.

Schaefer and Curls both said that the Senate journal for May 6, 2014, contained no mention that the Senate was called to stand "at ease," the normal parliamentary procedure whenever a protest breaks out in the chamber. It instead shows that the Senate recessed, with no mention of the demonstrations.

That perhaps could have been the deciding factor for jurors finding the defendants not guilty on the obstruction charge.

Sentencing for the trespassing charge is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday. Each of the 22 members found guilty face fines of up to $500 and up to six months in jail.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.