Jim Kenyon: Dartmouth persists with protester prosecutions  

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Valley News Columnist

Published: 12-20-2023 3:25 AM

Modified: 12-20-2023 4:29 PM

Overcharging, as it’s known in the legal world, is a ploy that prosecutors use to coerce criminal defendants into accepting a plea bargain.

By tacking on multiple charges from a single incident, the prosecution gains all-important leverage. In exchange for giving up their right to a trial, a defendant avoids the risk of harsher penalties, if found guilty. Roughly 10% or less of cases go to trial, national studies have shown.

“Reliance on plea bargaining has created incentives for innocent people to plead guilty and led to a huge increase in the number of Americans with criminal records,” the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization, reported in 2020.

To her credit, prosecutor Mariana Pastore isn’t playing the overcharging game with two Dartmouth students who were arrested in late October while trying to raise campus awareness about the war in Gaza.

That’s a good development for freshman Kevin Engel and junior Grace Hillery, who entered not guilty pleas to criminal trespassing in Lebanon District Court on Monday. Since they face a single misdemeanor charge that, if convicted, carries no jail time, there’s really no plea deal to strike. The cases are almost certain to go to trial.

That’s not-so-good news for Dartmouth President Sian Leah Beilock and her administration. Beilock and Co. will likely have to explain their actions under questioning in open court.

From what I’ve seen on Dartmouth social media, Beilock is a big fan of selfies, but I’m not sure that will work to her advantage on the witness stand.

I can’t wait to hear more about why Dartmouth went on the offensive by summoning cops for something that shouldn’t have become a police matter.

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Engel and Hillery were exercising their constitutional rights in a nonviolent manner. They refused to leave a camping tent they had occupied for six hours on the lawn in front of Parkhust Hall, where Beilock and her lieutenants have their offices.

College officials claimed the students were part of a campus group that had threatened “physical action” in one of its writings. I found nothing in court records that indicated the students were armed or threatening violence.

I suspect Dartmouth administrators made the claim to cast aspersions on the students and their cause. They might have also hoped it would give Pastore, who handles misdemeanor cases for Hanover police and several other communities, an excuse to throw criminal threatening charges into the mix.

It would have upped the ante to the point that Engel and Hillery would have to accept a plea bargain. (On campus, Hillery is known as Roan Wade. She’s in the process of changing her legal name, but court records have her as Grace Hillery.)

When I saw Pastore at the courthouse on Monday, she declined comment. Later, I asked Dartmouth if Beilock was available for an interview. Spokeswoman Diana Lawrence told me the college wouldn’t comment on an ongoing legal matter.

I couldn’t reach Engel or Hillery, who waived their arraignments on Monday. Since the charge they face carries no potential jail time, they aren’t entitled to public defenders. At Dartmouth, both are financial aid recipients who work part-time jobs to help support themselves.

Like many people facing misdemeanor charges, Engel and Hillery would be hard-pressed to pay for an attorney. Fortunately for them, Kira Kelley, a staff attorney with the Climate Defense Project, a Minnesota-based nonprofit, is representing them pro bono. Kelley is a 2011 Hanover High School graduate.

From lawyers whom I’ve talked with, the case rests largely on whether students can be guilty of committing a crime for participating in a nonviolent protest on their own campus.

So much for “Brave Spaces.”

Dartmouth can pretend that once Hanover cops were on the scene, the matter was out of its hands.

Don’t believe it.

On Monday, I called Charlie Buttrey, a longtime Lebanon criminal defense attorney who isn’t involved in the case but has been following it.

As the “victim” in the case, Dartmouth has considerable say in criminal proceedings moving forward, particularly since the students have been charged with a nonviolent misdemeanor, he said.

It’s been Buttrey’s experience that “at this level of offense, if the alleged victim doesn’t want to pursue it, the case is dropped,” he told me.

I could be misreading Beilock. Perhaps having cops haul away student-protesters in handcuffs is the look she’s seeking. The arrests have already gotten her the approval of the Dartmouth Review, the conservative student newspaper.

And now is not the time for presidents at elite colleges to back off from taking a hard line against students protesting Israeli’s military response to Hamas’ barbaric attack on Oct. 7.

University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill found herself out of that role after wavering when asked during a congressional hearing whether students who call for the genocide of Jews should be punished. The presidents at Harvard and MIT have also come under fire for not stating unequivocally that such speech violated campus policies.

Beilock still has plenty of work to do, however, if she wants to be considered in the same get-tough-on-dissenters league as Brown University President Christina Paxson.

On Dec. 11, 41 students were arrested at Brown during a protest that called for school leaders to commit to a list of demands related to the Israel-Hamas war, the Boston Globe reported. The students “refused to leave” a campus building after operating hours, after school officials issued “multiple trespass warnings.”

Dartmouth can feel better now. It’s not the only Ivy League school where political activism is branded a crime.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.