As an Occupy Wall Street activist sat in jail on Rikers Island earlier this week, several dozen people gathered outside city hall in downtown Manhattan to try to get her out.
The woman, 25-year-old Cecily McMillan, was arrested two years ago after elbowing a police officer in the face at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, where a gathering marking the six-month anniversary of New York City’s Occupy Wall Street encampment was taking place. Last week, a jury convicted McMillan – whose trial was one of the only ones to stem from the Occupy movement – of assault. She faces up to seven years in prison.
But McMillan’s supporters are calling for leniency when Judge Ronald Zweibel sentences her on May 19th. On Monday, some of those supporters, along with several city council members, met on the steps of city hall. Amid signs with messages like “Have Mercy,” “Leniency,” and “Cecily Has Suffered Enough,” speakers called for McMillan to receive community service instead of prison time.
Front and center was an enlarged version of a letter nine of the 12 jurors in McMillan’s case recently sent to Judge Zweibel.
“We feel that the felony mark on Cecily’s record is punishment enough for this case and that it serves no purpose to Cecily or to society to incarcerate her for any amount of time,” the letter reads, in part. Last week, one juror told The Guardian that most of the panel wanted her to receive probation.
Martin Stolar, an attorney for McMillan, said in a phone interview that McMillan got caught in the middle of a police operation to clear Zuccotti Park early on the morning of March 18th, 2012. In his closing arguments, Stolar said McMillan and a friend were celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and came to the park to meet another friend, not to protest. As far as elbowing the officer, the attorney said it was an accident – that McMillan felt someone grope her chest and she reacted. Stolar says several officers then fell on top of her; she hit her head; and later may have suffered a seizure. He says McMillan will appeal her conviction.
At Monday’s news conference, Brooklyn city council member Robert Cornegy said that Occupy Wall Street had been effective in raising the profile of those suffering during the recession and after, and that New York is paying more attention to “the 99 percent” because of people like McMillan.
“I believe if the judge gives the proper weight to the context that led to her arrest, Miss McMillan will be sentenced to community service,” Cornegy said.
The question remains whether the jurors’ letter and calls for leniency, both public and private, will have an effect on what Zweibel decides to do.
News conferences and things like street protests aren’t supposed to have any effect on a judge when it comes to sentencing, according to Candace McCoy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, but she says supporters can also contact judges on their own.
“Individual letters that point out the offender has a good character; individual letters that point out she will not be a risk in the future,” said McCoy in a phone interview. “These sorts of things should of course make a difference.”
Stolar says it’s always a good idea for judges in criminal cases to know how the general population feels. The judges should remain independent, Stolar says, “but they can’t be completely unmindful of what the community thinks.”
To that end, McMillan’s supporters have set up a website called “Justice for Cecily,” where visitors can send letters to Zweibel calling for leniency. The form letter on the site, which can be edited to reflect individuals’ own thoughts and feelings, is addressed to the judge and asks for McMillan to receive probation, citing her status as someone “committed to social justice” who’s “capable of making a contribution to society.” McMillan herself, in a letter posted on the website, says fellow inmates at Rikers Island have also written letters on her behalf.
Yetta Kurland, a friend of McMillan’s who read the jurors’ letter aloud at Monday’s news conference, said Zweibel must follow the law, but thinks “he should absolutely listen to the court of public opinion” and not give McMillan prison time.
McMillan will remain at Rikers Island through the weekend. A rally to support her is scheduled for Sunday afternoon. Her sentencing hearing is set for Monday morning.