November 10, 2020
In a letter dated November 2, 2020, Judge Stacey Smith of the Juneau County District Court in Mauston, Wisconsin, denied the motions made by seven antiwar activists to adjourn their trial scheduled for November 16. The seven, Bonnie Block, Joyce Ellwanger, Joy First, Bob Graf, Jim Murphy, Phil Runkel, all of Wisconsin and Brian Terrell, of Iowa, had been arrested for trespass on November 12, 2019, in a protest at Volk Field, a Wisconsin Air National Guard base that trains personnel to operate the RQ-7 Shadow Drone.
Representing themselves in separate motions, the activists called Judge Smith’s attention to the recommendation of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services that “COVID-19 is still spreading across our Wisconsin communities. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick. We recommend Wisconsinites cancel or postpone all travel, including travel within the state,” and asked that the trial be postponed “until such a time as travel is considered safe.”
Denying the motions, Judge Smith dismissed the COVID -19 concerns of the defendants, all of whom are in their 60s, 70s and 80s, assuring them that the court’s response is “proactive,” and encourages washing of hands, mask wearing and social distancing.
Judge Smith took special exception to Brian Terrell’s request that he consider the fact that for him to come to court from his home in Iowa “would require two days of interstate travel” and so his “presence in the court on November 16 would put court personnel and my co-defendants, several of whom are at high risk on multiple factors, at increased danger of exposure to COVID-19.” “I don’t understand how it is relevant that Mr. Terrell lives in Iowa or any other state in the union,” wrote Judge Smith, “I treat everyone in a reasonable and fair manner, no matter where they live.” In a letter to Judge Smith, Terrell clarified that his concern is not about being treated unfairly. “For me to travel to Mauston, Wisconsin, from my home in Maloy, Iowa, I would be on trains and busses for over ten hours in close proximity to other passengers, strangers traveling from all points. I would be waiting in stations from up to a few hours to overnight, depending on unreliable connections before getting a bus to Madison,” he wrote.
A further request to have the trial via Zoom was also denied, and the different circumstances of each defendant has made their original intention of a unified trial impossible.
Defendant Bonnie Block, a retired attorney of Madison filed a motion on November 9 to dismiss her case, citing that on that day the Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced over 7,000 new COVID-19 cases, the most of any day. “It appears clear the current methods of dealing with the virus in the Juneau County Courts (and elsewhere) are not sufficient. Rather appearing in person on 11/16 carries a great deal of risk for everyone. And since I’m 79 years old, I am at even greater risk both of contracting COVID-19 and of it being fatal. Thus the refusal to postpone the trial until this pandemic is over, gives me an untenable and unconscionable choice to appear at the risk of possible death or to give up my constitutional right to a day in court… Because I have a responsibility to my husband, children, and grandchildren, as well as extended family, friends, and fellow citizens to do my bit to prevent further spread of this deadly virus; I cannot appear in Court on November 16, 2020. And since the Court denied a postponement, I believe the only just solution is for the Court dismiss this matter.”
Joyce Ellwanger, of Milwaukee, does not intend to appear in court but is concerned that she would be barred from volunteering in Wisconsin prisons if she has outstanding court fees or a warrant. She is asking the judge to accept a written statement in hopes that it will be accepted in lieu of appearing and will pay a fine if found guilty. Brian Terrell has informed the judge “as a courtesy,” that he will not appear (“for me to appear in your court as ordered on November 16 would be an irresponsible act of reckless disregard for the public safety”) or make any motions. Joy First of Madison, Jim Murphy of Highland along with Bob Graf and Phil Runkel of Milwaukee intend to go to trial on November 16, as scheduled.
Citing the crowded court calendar and the fact that the case had already been postponed once, Judge Smith’s letter said, “I understand the times in which we live and you might be thinking, ‘What’s the big deal?’” He justified his refusal to delay the case any longer because “Justice that is untimely is no justice at all.” The defendants do not disagree that untimely justice is no justice at all, but they wonder when there will be justice for the many victims of drone wars, and that question draws them back to Volk Field.
Far from thinking “what’s the big deal?” the seven take their actions and the consequences with deadly seriousness. Catholic pastor Jim Murphy recognizes protests at other drone sites, “we need to carry our weight in Wisconsin and speak up-we have tried other options letters to three commanders, letters to US Senators with no response.” Bob Graf cites Martin Luther King, Jr, “Never again will I be silent on an issue that is destroying the soul of our nation…” A statement from the group delivered to Volk Field on November 12, 2019, reads “We come because we mourn the children who have died from attacks by U.S. military drones. We remember these children, whose lives have been cut short while also remembering their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and grandparents who continue to mourn the deaths of these beautiful children” and “We come because the personnel working with and training with the RQ-7 Shadow Drones at Volk Field are an integral part of and are complicit in the whole US drone warfare program.”
Judge Smith’s unreasonable dismissal of the COVID-19 health and safety concerns of the seven defendants along with the court’s blind eye to the crimes perpetrated at sites like Volk Field, are clearly occasions where acting with responsibility and with regard for the wellbeing of others comes into conflict with the law, when it is too narrowly understood.
The Wisconsin Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars
Joy First (608) 239-4327
Brian Terrell (773) 853-1886