JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Twenty-two religious leaders were spared from jail Thursday but still could face fines after being convicted of trespassing during protests in the Missouri Senate in support of expanded Medicaid coverage for low-income adults.
The religious leaders, many of whom are black, were among hundreds of clergy and other activists who filled the Senate gallery in May 2014, singing hymns and chanting for lawmakers to expand Medicaid eligibility as envisioned by Democratic President Barack Obama's health care law. Missouri's Republican-led Legislature has declined to do so.
Police arrested 23 protesters, who became known as the "Medicaid 23," when they failed to leave the chamber. One person wasn't present for jury selection earlier this week and will be tried separately.
Jurors on Wednesday convicted the 22 religious leaders of first-degree trespassing but acquitted them of charges of disrupting government operations. They could have faced up to six months in jail and up to a $500 fine. But it took jurors only about 10 minutes Thursday to decide against jail time and instead recommend a fine.
Cole County Circuit Judge Dan Green said he would determine the amount of that fine at an unspecified future date. A typical fine for trespassing in Jefferson City is about $100, said attorney Nimrod Chapel Jr., president of the Missouri NAACP, who helped represent the defendants.
The religious leaders gathered for a group photo Thursday on the steps of the Cole County Courthouse but deferred questions to their attorneys. Chapel said they were considering whether to appeal.
"This tough-on-crime stand, that we've got to hammer down on traditional American values, is ridiculous," Chapel told reporters. "There's no need for us to impose a stiff sentence, to prosecute people talking about their First Amendment rights."
Chapel denounced the prosecutor as "out-of-touch" with the community, considering that Missouri has been a "touchstone" for racial issues.
The Medicaid protest occurred three months before the fatal Ferguson police shooting of Michael Brown sparked local riots and a national debate about the way police interact with black residents. The white officer was cleared of wrongdoing by a state grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice.
A little over a year later, a protest by black students at the University of Missouri-Columbia over perceived indifference to their concerns culminated with a threatened boycott by the football team and the resignation of university leaders.
This year, Republican candidates for governor and other top state offices have been running on a law-and-order theme of cracking down on protesters.
Cole County Prosecutor Mark Richardson, who is a Republican, declined to comment Thursday about the case against the faith leaders. He had told jurors during closing arguments that the protesters had "all the chance in the world" to leave but did not.
Republican state Rep. Jay Barnes, who is one of their defense attorneys, blasted Richardson for bringing the charges. Barnes said he hadn't heard from a single lawmaker saying it was appropriate to charge them.
"For him to stand in the courtroom and pretend that he is the caped crusader defending the Capitol is a complete, utter farce," said Barnes, one of the few Republicans who had proposed bills to expand Medicaid coverage to more low-income adults.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon said any frustration should be directed at GOP lawmakers, not at the protesting pastors.
"People certainly have the right to come, to be there in an open public place," Nixon told reporters Thursday at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia. "These clergy on the front lines of the working poor, they're passionate about this for the right reasons."
Associated Press writer Summer Ballentine contributed to this report from Sedalia.
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