JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Twenty-two Missouri clergy members could face up to six months behind bars after being convicted Wednesday on trespassing charges and acquitted of other counts in connection with a peaceful 2014 protest over Medicaid expansion at the state Capitol.
Jurors found the clergy guilty of first-degree trespassing, a misdemeanor, but not guilty of charges of disrupting government operations.
Sentencing is set for Thursday. They also face fines of as much as $500 each.
Several of the defendants who were wearing religious garments cried in the Cole County courtroom when the judge announced the not guilty verdict. They sat quietly when the trespassing verdicts were read.
Those on trial were among hundreds of clergy and other activists who filled the public seating area in the Senate gallery in May 2014, singing hymns and chanting for senators to “pass Medicaid expansion, to do justice, to have mercy, to be fair” and bring health care to “the poorest of the poor.”
Senate GOP leaders halted work for about an hour while police cleared the gallery and arrested 23 clergy members who at first didn’t leave. The group sometimes is called the Medicaid 23, although only 22 were on trial Wednesday.
Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Richardson told jurors during his closing argument that protesters had “all the chance in the world” to leave but did not.
He said that’s “completely consistent with a group that started out saying, ‘We want to be arrested to draw attention to our cause.'”
Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican House member who is one of the attorneys representing the clergy, called that an “absurd theory” and said protesters didn’t want to be arrested. He told jurors there wasn’t proof that police warned each of the 22 defendants on trial that they’d be arrested for trespassing if they didn’t leave.
He also said in closing arguments that there wasn’t proof that the protest-disrupted Senate work. He pointed to two senators who testified that they weren’t interrupted.
“Do you wish to live in the kind of place where preachers face prosecution for following the dictates of their own conscience in a peaceful protest?” Barnes asked before choking up as the defendants, some wearing crosses, stood one by one to face the jury.