A federal judge on Wednesday suspended the trial of gay former Army Lt. Dan Choi after the prosecutor said she would challenge his preliminary finding that sufficient evidence exists that Choi was targeted for “vindictive prosecution” in connection with a White House protest last November.
Choi and 12 other activists were arrested Nov. 15 for handcuffing themselves to the White House fence to protest the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law. Choi faces a possible sentence of six months in jail or a $5,000 fine if convicted on a misdemeanor charge of disobeying a lawful order to disperse from the fence.
In a tense exchange between U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge John Facciola, prosecutor Angela George announced she would file a request for a writ of mandamus or legal challenge before the court’s chief judge to contest Facciola’s decision to allow Choi’s attorneys to pursue a vindictive prosecution defense.
Facciola responded by saying he would suspend the trial for 10 days to give George, an assistant U.S. Attorney, time to prepare a motion for a writ of mandamus and to provide Chief Judge Royce Lamberth time to consider it.
William Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office, confirmed that George would seek the writ of mandamus from Lamberth. But he declined to comment further on the matter, saying his office never comments on pending cases.
If Lamberth grants the request, legal observers say Facciola would likely be directed not to allow Choi’s attorneys to pursue a vindictive prosecution defense. Should he turn down the request, Facciola would be free to allow the vindictive prosecution defense to move forward.
Such a defense would allow Choi’s attorneys to pursue documents and subpoena witnesses that Choi’s supporters say could possibly link the alleged effort to go after Choi for a harsher prosecution to higher-level government officials, including officials at the White House.
Defense attorney Robert Feldman called Facciola’s finding that the defense presented a “prima facie case” that a vindictive prosecution occurred a “vindication” of Choi’s longstanding contention that his arrest and prosecution violated his constitutional right to free speech.
The clash between George and Facciola came on the third day of the trial and one day after Choi testified for more than two hours as the lead witness for his own defense, saying he was exercising his First Amendment right to free speech at the White House protest.
In response to Feldman’s questions, Choi testified at length about his role as a civil rights activist for LGBT people and for gays in the military. He told how he models his actions on the black civil rights movement of the 1960s, including the famous lunch counter sit-ins at a Woolworth’s department store in Greensboro, N.C., that challenged segregation laws.
Choi testified that a series of three White House protests against the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law on gays in the military, in which he and other activists were arrested at the White House fence, were based on the same principle used in the black civil rights movement for exercising a constitutional right of free speech.
“I believe that was a transformative moment,” he said of the White House protests.
George objected repeatedly to Choi’s dialogue on civil rights, saying it was not relevant to the case at hand. To the amazement of some courtroom observers, Facciola overruled her objections almost every time she raised them.
In her cross-examination of Choi, George pressed the former Army officer, West Point graduate and combat veteran in the Iraq war to respond to the charge that he disobeyed a lawful order to disperse from the White House fence.
Choi responded by citing a provision in U.S. military law pertaining to unlawful orders.
“If you are given an order that is unlawful or immoral, it is your duty to disobey that order,” he said.
Feldman and defense co-counsel Norman Kent told reporters covering the trial that Choi’s defense is based, in part, on the premise that prosecutors singled him out for a harsher prosecution when they charged him with violating a federal regulation pertaining to White House protests and demonstrations along the White House fence and sidewalk.
The federal regulation carries a penalty of six months in jail and a possible $5,000 fine. The two attorneys said people arrested in virtually all other White House demonstrations in recent memory – including Choi and other activists in similar protests in April and May of 2010 – were charged under a D.C. municipal ordinance they compare to a traffic violation that carries no prison sentence.
In his testimony on Tuesday, Choi said he believes prosecutors decided to invoke the far more harsh federal regulation against him in the Nov. 15, 2010 case, which he now faces at trial, because of his role as a gay former military officer who is “standing up for my beliefs.”
Choi stated in his testimony that thousands of people appeared to have violated the same regulation with which he was charged when they gathered at the White House earlier this year to celebrate President Barack Obama’s announcement that accused terrorist Osama bin Laden had been killed in a U.S. military operation in Pakistan.
Choi and his attorneys noted that dozens of the revelers that evening clung to the White House fence and did not move back and forth along the sidewalk, as required under the ordinance for a demonstration, when they cheered and expressed support for the president’s role in bin Laden’s capture and death.