By Danielle Krolewicz
On Wednesday, April 4, a jury of six found Terese Howard, Jerry Burton, and Randy Russell guilty of violating Denver’s unauthorized camping ordinance—more commonly known as the camping ban.
The three, who refer to the city ordinance as the “surviving ban,” were ticketed by police on the night of November 28, 2016. Their blankets were taken as proof by the Denver police, an action that attracted national media attention at the time.
The trio faced a fine of $999 and up to one year in jail, but were ultimately sentenced to one year of court-ordered probation and 20-40 hours of community service.
“I’m not surprised [about the verdict],” said Howard. “The limits given by the judge were such that the jury was constrained to either step entirely outside of what they were told to do and take a risk that most people aren’t willing to take—to stand with humanity and with their heart instead of with the law.”
Before the trial, Judge Kerri Lombardi instructed the defense not to engage in jury nullification and limited the defense's ability to use a necessity defense. Jury nullification allows juries to refuse to convict a person based on an unjust law. Necessity defense would have allowed the defense to argue that homeless people have no choice but to break the law, therefore they cannot be convicted of crimes such as sleeping in public.
“The law itself was cherry picked down to only a portion of the ordinance,” said Howard. “It was extremely limited, leaving the verdict not very surprising.” According to Howard, the jury was only allowed to decide whether or not the three had violated the law, taking nothing else into consideration—including the fact that the defendants were homeless, another pending class-action lawsuit against the city, and large portions of the text of the ordinance itself. Omitting these details was seen by the defense as a way of narrowing the scope and ability of the jury’s decision-making process.
Two weeks after the verdict, state lawmakers voted down the Right to Rest Act. The measure would have made Denver's camping ban obsolete.
Attorney Jason Flores-Williams represented the three and cited Howard’s impassioned speech during sentencing, in which she said that this is just the beginning of the fight and encouraged everyone to keep working “for human dignity and the equal rights of all.”
“While [she was talking], I think we were all sitting there thinking ‘justice died a little bit today,’” said Flores-Williams, who hopes the verdict will garner enough media attention to get people talking about the rights of people experiencing homelessness.
According to Howard, Burton will continue to bring the case further in the appeals process, with a different lawyer to represent him.
“I fight for a lot of people who have been beaten down,” said Flores-Williams. “It would have been so wonderful to be sitting here today and realize that there’s still some fire in the belly of America, so that when people go on a jury they’d say, ‘No, I’m not following an immoral law.’ On this local level it would have been an injection of light in a dark time and it could have been that. Instead, we have to march the hard road.”
Flores-Williams will represent people experiencing homelessness in Denver in a class-action lawsuit at the federal level this fall. The lawsuit was filed in August 2016 against the city of Denver. Among other things, it alleges that Denver has been violating the Constitution—especially the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unlawful search and seizure—by subjecting the city’s homeless population to recurring “sweeps” of their belongings.
“I view this trial and all of the attention that it’s garnered as really amping up the debate as we move into the big trial” said Flores-Williams. “I think it will be useful. If you look at all great activist trials and civil rights movements and things like that, it takes a lot of people being found guilty before people finally get to a point and say, ‘No, this is not good what we’re doing.’” ■