AUGUSTA — Criminal trespass charges against a group of protesters arrested last May while taking part in an anti-poverty demonstration at the Blaine House were dismissed Thursday.

The group of 15 people, who were scheduled to go to trial this week, had their charges dismissed after they had either completed community service of made a donation to a nonprofit group.

The protesters included several members of the clergy and Zackary Ringelstein, the Democratic candidate who unsuccessfully challenged independent U.S. Sen. Angus King for his seat last November.

Some of the accused protesters already had pleaded guilty to the charges against them, but 15 of them were set for a jury trial this week. That trial was canceled after all 15 remaining defendants reached an agreement with prosecutors. The charges were dismissed Thursday after all of the accused provided proof they had each either done 10 hours of community service or donated $100 to a nonprofit group in Kennebec County.

Lawyers for the group members said their clients agreed to the resolution of the case in large part because, with a new administration in the Blaine House, one of their major goals of the demonstration — increasing access to health care by expanding Medicaid — has been accomplished.

“I think, for my clients, after the election they realized a victory,” said Merritt T. Heminway, an attorney who represented five protesters. “One of the major reasons they were sitting in on the governor’s lawn was, with Gov. (Paul) LePage, they were extremely frustrated by his refusal to expand Medicaid coverage. My clients were in the middle of that exact debate and felt they had a real influence on the election, and they won.”

Gov. Janet Mills, fulfilling a campaign vow, signed an executive order soon after taking office expanding Medicaid to more than 70,000 Mainers. LePage opposed the expansion.

The May 14, 2018, demonstration was part of the nationwide Poor People’s Campaign, with about 150 people at the protest on State House grounds, according to organizers, rallying to advocate for Medicaid expansion, more help for homeless people and other anti-poverty efforts.

District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said the agreement was a good resolution to the case, which involved class E charges, the lowest level of charge.

“I think resolving a low-level crime with community service is a good thing to do,” Maloney said Thursday. “This is a group of people who wanted to do community service to resolve the case, and I think that’s beneficial for the community. They completed the community service, so we’ve dismissed the charges.”

Attorney Tina Nadeau, whose clients in the case included the Rev. Carie Johnsen, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church in Augusta, said she also believed her clients agreed to the deal instead of going to trial. She said prosecutors were initially reluctant to make the deal, instead seeking to have the protesters plead guilty initially with, through deferred disposition, the ability to have the charges dismissed if they later met agreed upon conditions.

“I’m glad the prosecution came around, ultimately, to this,” Nadeau said. “It’s a testament to our clients. They’re true believers, and we need more of them in the world.”

Logan Perkins, attorney for five protesters, including Ringelstein, said she didn’t think any of the clients “felt particularly guilty” about their actions and were happy to resolve the case without a guilty plea by coming to a mutual agreement on a resolution.

Several others among the May 14 arrestees — the numbers vary from the 18 reported in the news to 22 as calculated by the campaign coordinators — were convicted previously, but the majority remained united in their desire to go to trial, until the community service or donation agreement was reached.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]
Twitter: @kedwardskj

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