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Judge dismisses criminal trespassing charges against pro-Palestinian protesters arrested at Columbia University building

Mary Altaffer/AP

FILE – Camp of student protesters on the campus of Columbia University on April 30, 2024, in New York.



CNN

A New York judge on Thursday dismissed trespassing charges against 30 people who were among dozens arrested inside Columbia University's Hamilton Hall during a pro-Palestinian protest in April, prosecutors citing lack of evidence.

Of the 46 people initially arrested, 15 defendants still face charges, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office said.

Dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters were accused of illegally entering the university's Hamilton Hall on April 30 and barricading themselves inside before the university requested help from the University of Toronto police. New York. After being removed from the building, many were charged with third-degree criminal trespass, a class B misdemeanor.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said at the time that he intended to review each case and make decisions based on the facts and the law. In the past, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office has declined to prosecute or postponed prosecutions in cases where large numbers of people were arrested in connection with civil disobedience.

At Thursday's hearing, Judge Kevin McGrath dismissed 30 trespassing cases against people with no criminal history. Another accused had already had his case dismissed, bringing a total of 31 people who no longer face charges.

“At the time of the alleged offenses, the defendants were either staff members or students enrolled at Columbia University and are now subject to student or staff disciplinary proceedings,” according to the press release from the Manhattan DA.

In calling for the charges to be dropped on Thursday, Assistant District Attorney Stephen Millan cited what he called “extremely limited video,” adding that “security cameras were immediately covered by some defendants” that prosecutors did not were unable to identify.

Available video evidence “fails to establish or prove” that the 31 people participated in damage to university property or harm to anyone, making it difficult for prosecutors to prove anything else as intrusion during the trial, the prosecutor's office said.

Also complicating matters, students inside Hamilton Hall wore face masks, making it difficult to tie students to specific acts, according to a law enforcement official.

Columbia University declined to comment on the legal proceedings Thursday when contacted by CNN.

Fourteen of the defendants still charged – 12 of whom were not Columbia staff or students – were offered deferments in anticipation of dismissal (ACDs), the Manhattan district attorney's office said. An ACD allows a court to defer a defendant's case – with the possibility that the defendant's charge will be dismissed – if the defendant does not engage in additional criminal behavior.

But those defendants refused that offer, they said at a news conference outside the courtroom after Thursday's hearing, addressing protesters wearing keffiyehs, a traditional Palestinian headscarf. .

“We are here today united by our action and by the Palestinian cause,” said one of the demonstrators. “The state has attempted, once again, to divide us – by rejecting some of our cases and offering others deals in accordance with their narrative as outside agitators,” adding that they reject division which, according to them, aims to “preserve the sanctity of Columbia University, not an institution within the City of New York but always above and apart from it.”

“All of us who participated in the liberation of Hind's Hall were driven by the same need to escalate, to escalate for Gaza, to resist the savage genocide of our brothers and sisters in Palestine,” the protester continued, referring to Hamilton Hall under any other name. were granted to him by the demonstrators.

“We exercised our common right to oppose the American war machine by putting our bodies in the years of Colombia, one of its best-oiled domestic components. »

The protester said the defendants unanimously rejected agreements to present a “united front against state repression.”

All 14 defendants are due to appear in court again on July 25.

“The only allegation that differs is that they were not currently enrolled as students or employed by the university,” said public defender Matthew Daloisio, who represents 43 defendants.

Daloisio argued that these defendants experienced the same police raid and suffered the same injuries as anyone else during the NYPD raid.

A 15th defendant, James Carlson, 40, was arrested for burglary at Columbia University and faces a third-degree criminal trespass charge from the Manhattan DA, according to court records. He also faces an arson charge stemming from a separate incident. He pleaded not guilty in both cases, according to court records.

On Thursday, Carlson appeared before the judge, where the prosecutor recounted how he was accused of being involved in the Hamilton Hall protest. Carlson is accused of damaging an NYPD camera and participating in the burning of an Israeli flag. When the prosecutor described the flag burning in court, some supporters in the courtroom sneered, prompting the clerk to reprimand them and tell them to be quiet.

The prosecutor said school disciplinary proceedings were underway for the students whose cases were dismissed.

CNN's Emma Tucker contributed to this report.

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