Rocky Mountain News
Parade trials fizzle

City attorney backs off vow to prosecute Columbus protesters

By Charlie Brennan, Rocky Mountain News
January 25, 2005

Never mind.

Three days after firmly vowing to prosecute all the approximately 230 remaining cases against Columbus Day parade protesters, Denver City Attorney Cole Finegan announced Monday that he will instead dismiss them.

Finegan's announcement cited a string of recent judicial rulings in the protesters' favor, plus the acquittal of eight protest organizers who stood trial last week for blocking the Oct. 9 parade.

"After reviewing the facts and the rulings to date, and knowing that the facts will be substantially the same in each case, I do not believe that we have a reasonable likelihood of conviction" in the remaining cases, Finegan said in a prepared statement.

"Accordingly, I will direct our prosecutors to dismiss the remaining cases."

The latest blow against the city came Monday when Denver County Judge Kathleen Bowers dismissed loitering charges against about 75 defendants, following the precedent set by two other judges to whom cases had been assigned.

"They couldn't charge them with loitering, because to do that you have to show that they had no purpose" for being in the parade route, said defense lawyer Wade Eldridge, one of several attorneys who handled the activists' cases for no fee.

"And, they clearly had a purpose for being there."

That left only a municipal charge of failing to obey a lawful order in place against those 75 - the same charge on which eight defendants last week were found not guilty in a three-day Denver County Court jury trial.

Finegan also announced Monday that his office is starting work to draft Denver ordinances modeled after state laws making it illegal to disrupt a lawful assembly and to obstruct a highway or a passageway.

Currently, Denver does not have similar laws on its books.

Finegan said his goal is to better protect the First Amendment rights of both the parade's participants and the protesters.

"We're trying to find an answer," Finegan said, "because obviously, we don't have the right answer, right now."

Glenn Morris, a member of the leadership council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado, and one of the defendants acquitted last week, said Finegan had insisted to him in a meeting late Friday that all remaining cases would still go forward.

"Of course we're delighted" to hear that now they will not, Morris said Monday.

"But, we do have a comprehensive plan to allow the city to prevent this in the future," which will be announced today.

Eldridge and his fellow defense lawyers in the case also welcomed the decision.

"It saves me a bunch of work and the taxpayers a bunch of money," said Eldridge.

The Columbus Day parade has been a lightning rod for controversy for more than a decade.

American Indian Movement activists arrested for blocking the 1991 parade were acquitted at a 1992 trial, and the parade was then shelved until 2000.

Protests at the 2000 parade led to 139 more arrests; all those defendants saw their cases dismissed a few months later.

More than 240 people were arrested at the event last year, for blocking the parade's progress at the intersection of 19th and Blake streets.

The protesters have said they acted out of a moral duty to stop what they see as an act of ethnic intimidation, because they see the event as a celebration of a historical figure they blame for the genocide and oppression of millions.

Denver Police Chief Gerry Whitman said his officers had done an "admirable job" of handling the volatile Columbus Day event and resulting protests.

"As for what happens after that, as far as the legal positioning, that's completely out of our hands," Whitman said.

"I don't think either side is going to agree about what law should be enforced," he added.

"I would like to see some kind of resolution that's agreeable to both sides."

A spokesman for Sons of Italy-New Generation, organizers of the Columbus Day parade, did not return a call Monday seeking comment.

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