I wasn't at the trial in Michigan, where a jury delivered their conviction Friday morning; I was here in Toronto, in a meeting with my superiors at the paper, cheerfully talking about how the Toronto mayor's race was shaping up. I'd pretty much convinced myself that, based on what I knew about the case and reports I'd gotten about just how well Peter's lawyer Douglas Mullkoff was arguing it, there would be an acquittal.
After all - under cross-examination by Mullkoff, the border guards had conceded that Peter hadn't assaulted anyone; hadn't threatened to assault anyone; and that his aggressive stance was nothing any reasonable person would consider aggressive. The allegations that he had somehow choked border guard Andrew Beaudry while Beaudry was hitting him, were demolished. The only choking going on is mine right now, typing that Beaudry was merely somehow mistaken when he accused Peter of being a strangler.
If I was wondering anything, it was what we'd be eating at the homecoming party.
Didn't work out that way. Because, there is this statute - that essentially criminalizes non-compliance to such a broad degree that asking a question (as Peter did) before complying with an order from a border guard is a felony. In terms of the sentence one might serve - well, Peter might as well have choked Beaudry. It amounts to the same thing.
As Peter explains on his blog:
This shouldn't surprise me - the United States is a foreign country, for all its nearness. Its founders espoused different values from those of the architects of my homeland; those founders' sons and daughters today espouse values utterly alien to my own. That an American state should pass a law that criminalizes the act of questioning - of hesitation - in the face of a physical assault by a representative of their federal government... that might come as a surprise in the particular case. But generally, in the context of American history, it's not so far off the mean that I should be as shocked as I am.
The press has frequently characterized the charge against me as “assaulting a federal officer”. The alleged (and discredited) “choking” episode has been repeated ad nauseum. Here at the Sarnia Best Western I don’t have the actual statute in front of me but it includes a lengthy grab-bag of actions, things like “assault”, “resist”, “impede”, “threaten”, “obstruct” — hell, “contradict” might be in there for all I know. And under “obstruct” is “failure to comply with a lawful order”, and it’s explicitly stated that violence on the part of the perp is not necessary for a conviction. Basically, everything from asking “Why?” right up to chain-saw attack falls under the same charge. And it’s all a felony.
The temptation to fall into anti-Americanism has the pull of gravity right now; the "neighbour to the south" feels to me like the kind of neighbour that returns our tools broken and leers at our daughters. Ask me now if I ever intend to visit the United States, I'd say no. Not again. Ask me if you should, and I'd say: only if you can't avoid it. And if you do go, bring a bagged lunch, a thermos of coffee and only order glasses of water in the restaurants. Keep your at-par dollar working at home.
That's how I'm feeling - but look, I understand it's not productive. I know too many Americans, and love and respect too many Americans, to start thinking about building walls and silly little personal economic sanctions. America has become fearful for its safety since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Really, it would have far more cause for that fearfulness, were it not for the goodness of so many of its people.
Many of those people did, in fact, contribute to Peter's defense fund, that allowed him to make his case so eloquently - to discredit the lie, that he did anything to deserve the brutal beating he received at the hands of Andrew Beaudry, or that he did anything that might warrant the hell he and those close to him have gone through in its wake. Some jurors even appear have come forward and added nuance to their decision, in singular missives among the many vile comments on newspaper articles and blogs. Like this one, at the Times-Herald, by a commenter claiming to have been on the jury:
Or this one, on Peter's blog:
As a member of the jury that convicted Mr. Watts today, I have a few comments to make. The jury's task was not to decide who we liked better. The job of the jury was to decide whether Mr. Watts "obstructed/resisted" the custom officials. Assault was not one of the charges. What it boiled down to was Mr. Watts did not follow the instructions of the customs agents. Period. He was not violent, he was not intimidating, he was not stopping them from searching his car. He did, however, refuse to follow the commands by his non compliance. He's not a bad man by any stretch of the imagination. The customs agents escalted the situation with sarcasm and miscommunication. Unfortunately, we were not asked to convict those agents with a crime, although, in my opinion, they did commit offenses against Mr. Watts. Two wrongs don't make a right, so we had to follow the instructions as set forth to us by the judge.
They both sound like good-hearted people. My own conscience would have driven me to a different decision than the one they made. Even if it weren't my friend's life in the balance, I like to think I would have asked the judge the question:
I believe your description of the trial and deliberations is more accurate than you could know. As a non-conformist and “libertarian” (who has had some experiences not unlike yours) I was not comfortable with my vote, but felt deep inside that it was consistent with the oath we took as jurors. I believe nearly all the jurors searched for a legitimate reason to vote differently. In the end it came down to the question “Was the law broken?”. While I would much rather have a beer and discussion with you than Officer B. I never the less felt obligated to vote my conscience. I also believe most, if not all, the jurors sincerely hope that you are handled with a great degree of leniency, we, unfortunately have no say in that matter.
If we feel the statute is mis-applied, if we feel that the accused is a victim of a crime and not a perpetrator - and that statute is functioning to mask the real crime - can we without violating our oath deliver a verdict of not guilty even if the accused's actions technically fall within that statute?
But if some of the jurors' values appear to also be mine - I know that my conscience is not theirs. As Peter said in his blog, they deliberated for some time before coming to their decision. They took the matter seriously. That's something.
It doesn't comfort; it doesn't change anything.
But it's something.