Eight Occupy Wall Street members guilty of trespass

NEW YORK Mon Jun 18, 2012 6:00pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Eight Occupy Wall Street members were convicted on Monday of criminal trespass for breaking into a fenced-in private lot last December during a protest.

The protesters scaled an eight-foot fence, ignoring signs that warned against trespassing, and entered a plaza known as Duarte Square that is owned by historic Trinity Church, one of lower Manhattan's largest land-owners.

The one-week trial in Manhattan Criminal Court pitted the church, once a strong ally of the movement, against Occupy supporters, who pressured church leaders not to cooperate with the prosecution.

Through its protests, which spread across the country, Occupy Wall Street started a national conversation on economic inequality last fall. But the movement has struggled to maintain its viability after police cleared most of its encampments in various cities.

In the trial before Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Matthew Sciarrino, one defendant, Mark Adams, was also convicted of trying to slice through the fence's locks with bolt-cutters.

Sciarrino sentenced him to 45 days, more than the 30 days that prosecutors had been seeking; he did not offer an explanation.

The other seven defendants received four days of community service.

"I'm not shocked, but I'm disappointed that the court felt private property interests trumped our clients' good-faith defenses," said Gideon Oliver Orion, one of four defense lawyers.

In finding the protesters guilty, Sciarrino said property rights are as important as freedom of speech.

"This was a forceful taking, an invasion, an occupation, pure and simple," he said.

The incident occurred on December 17, a month after a police raid disbanded the Occupy encampment at Zuccotti Park, about a mile from the square.

In a statement, Erin Duggan, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan District Attorney's office, said the office "greatly respects the First Amendment right of citizens to protest" but that its exercise must not violate the law.

There have been more than 2,250 Occupy-related arrests since September, Duggan said. Approximately two-thirds of those have ended in non-criminal dispositions, mostly through conditional dismissals.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Leslie Gevirtz)

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