I-94 protesters plead guilty before sympathetic judge

I-94 protester Brian Heilman said he was 'happy' and 'proud' to be in court Monday after fighting to prevent Castile's cousin, Louis Hunter, from serving time for protesting.

I-94 protester Brian Heilman said he was 'happy' and 'proud' to be in court Monday after fighting to prevent Castile's cousin, Louis Hunter, from serving time for protesting.

There’s not much argument that people broke the law more than a year ago while protesting the police killing of St. Paul Schools lunch supervisor Philando Castile.

The night of July 9, 2016, an initially peaceful march and I-94 standoff with law enforcement turned violent when some protesters, ignoring commands to disperse, hurled glass bottles, Molotov cocktails, and rocks at police. Several were injured. More than 100 protesters were arrested. By December, 21 will have been tried for their crimes in small groups.

On Monday, Emmett Doyle, Brian Heilman, Jesse Mortenson, and Rachel Mueller appeared in court to answer unlawful assembly and public nuisance charges. None was accused of engaging in violence.

But as for shutting down I-94 along with hundreds of other protesters, each defendant accepted responsibility and pleaded guilty before Ramsey County Judge G. Tony Atwal, who sentenced the four defendants to one year of probation, with credit for time served.

They’d previously refused identical deals offered by the prosecution in protest of felony riot allegations against Louis Hunter, Castile’s cousin. Hunter’s charges were dropped in early August due to lack of evidence and inconsistent eyewitness accounts by police officers.

Making a straight plea to the court allowed each of Monday's defendants to make a full statement about why they’d taken part in the highway protest, and what they had encountered there. While admitting to breaking the law, and acknowledging Judge Atwal’s responsibility to hold them accountable, defendants said they’d felt bound by their conscience to remain with the final body of protesters until the end.

“That moment of learning about [Castile’s] death stands out really sharply in my mind,” Mueller said. “It felt like … I can’t go on making my coffee every morning, looking at the news, seeing these headlines, and then going to work and continuing with my daily life. And so, going on that highway felt like a really important moment … to take an active stance for what I believe in.”

The gentle-mannered Judge Atwal commended the protesters for fighting for social progress, and encouraged them not to be swayed by criticism -- which, in the wake of news about their protests, came in the form of numerous online threats calling for them to be run over.

“We as the United States still have a long way to go,” he said. “I do understand why you did what you did.”

Atwal also offered some criticism of his own. He cautioned protesters that police are first to be called when people are in danger, and that the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee the right to protest anywhere, at any moment.

Atwal advised the protesters to reach out to people with differing opinions so that society could move forward in unity, because the answer to changing the world “likely lies somewhere in the middle.”