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Gaertner: Terrorism charges would be a 'distraction'

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Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner
Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner.
MPR Photo/Melanie Sommer

Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said she's dropping two terrorism-related charges against the RNC 8 because she thought those charges would complicate the case.

"Having the terrorism enhancement, we thought, simply would distract the jury at trial," said Gaertner. 

The anti-terror laws were crafted by the State Legislature in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.  The law was created to give longer sentences for felonies that involve premeditation and violence, and are intended to intimidate.  

Anti-war protest
A protester shouts during an anti-war rally near the State Capitol Thursday evening on the final day of the Republican National Convention in downtown St. Paul.
MPR photo/Caroline Yang

Even though she's dropping the terror charges, Gaertner said the felony charges of conspiracy to commit riot and conspiracy to commit criminal damage to property will stand.  She said if the eight are found guilty, the penalties they face will not be diminished because the other charges were dropped.

"Dissent, of course, is not a crime.  Peaceful protest certainly is not a crime.  Conspiring to riot, conspiring to commit criminal damage to property is a crime, and that's what's alleged here," said Gaertner.

Protesters and police repeatedly butted heads before and during the Republican National Convention.  On its Web site, members of the "RNC Welcoming Committee" were calling for activists to "crash the convention" in St. Paul.  

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher arrested several protesters before the convention even started.  The give-and-take escalated when the convention began -- protesters broke windows, police fired tear gas and arrested dozens of people.  

"Having the terrorism enhancement, we thought, simply would distract the jury at trial."

Jordan Kushner, an attorney representing one of the RNC 8, said all of the charges should be dropped.  He said his client and the others were planning peaceful protests, not conspiring to riot or damage property.  

"What they were involved in was political organizing, to try and help people in their efforts to be in the streets and protest the policies of the Republicans," said Kushner. "And for that action they were pre-emptively arrested and held in jail so they couldn't participate in the protests themselves, and then charged with felony charges afterwards."

Kushner also said it wasn't any kind of noble act for Gaertner to dismiss the charges.  He mentioned that she's a DFL candidate for governor and believes political pressure forced her to drop the charges. 

"The county attorney is clearly concerned about the ramifications for these charges on her campaign for governor, and so she dismissed the charges for political cover," said Kushner. "She also needs to dismiss the other charges."

Gaertner said her political aspirations have nothing to do with the decision to dismiss the charges, and her office is moving forward based on the law.  

She called the case a "no-win situation" for prosecutors because some will say the charges are too harsh while others will argue they are too soft.

Gaertner said her office will formally drop the terrorism charges at a May 25 hearing, and she expects the trial to begin in September.