Friday, December 14, 2012
Stadium Woods demonstrators freed
After first being arrested for disorderly conduct, the five pleaded not guilty to a lesser charge.
CHRISTIANSBURG -- The Stadium Woods five are free.
Five demonstrators -- including one Virginia Tech student -- charged in October with disorderly conduct for blocking temporary parking spaces on the root zone of the university's Stadium Woods pleaded not guilty Thursday to a lesser charge.
Rebekah Paulson, 50; Tech student Dylan Brooks, 29; Arleen Lambert, 72; Wendy Lynn "Starflower" O'Sullivan, 49; and Rosemarie Sawdon, 75, were arrested Oct. 12 on charges of disorderly conduct for blocking parking at the unpaved edge of Stadium Woods.
The demonstrators are part of Friends of Stadium Woods, a grass-roots group that for more than a year has urged Tech officials to protect the 14-acre forest fragment from development, and from damage forestry professors have said result from parking vehicles over the roots of the trees.
Dozens of trees between 100 and 400 years old have been identified in the woods, sparking efforts to preserve the area. Tech football players are allowed to park on the unpaved edge of the woods. The demonstrators have said that practice could compact the soil and damage the roots of the trees, and they have held two demonstrations opposing it. Only one resulted in arrests.
About a dozen supporters, including Montgomery County School Board member Phyllis Albritton, sat in the courtroom Thursday in support of the demonstrators.
Montgomery County General District Court Judge Gino Williams accepted the agreement between the demonstrators and Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Andrew Stevens to reduce the original disorderly conduct charges to charges of obstructing free passage.
The defendants pleaded not guilty under the agreement.
Williams took the reduced charges under advisement and said he will dismiss them after that time, so long as the demonstrators stay out of trouble.
Lambert said after the hearing: "I did this for the trees, because trees can't talk."
Paulson, director of Friends of Stadium Woods, said she was "angry that they can change the charge."
It's the responsibility of the police to find the correct charge the first time around, she said.
The group of five discussed at length the option of standing trial on the original charges, Paulson said. She said she believed they would have been dismissed.
But the group decided by consensus to follow the advice of their attorneys and cooperate with the prosecution.
Defense attorney Thomas Strelka said the prosecution likely could not have proven the disorderly conduct charges.
"A peaceful demonstration can never be disorderly," Strelka said.
Some violence or disturbance would be required to prove that charge.
Hours after the arrests, Tech police Maj. Kevin Foust described the demonstrators as cordial and cooperative.
"These people," Strelka said, "they are just very passionate."