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Nate Hangs in the Balance

NFTA police: protecting and serving Nate Buckley. (photo by Christina Cooke)

The trials of a local protester grind on

Nate Buckley has been waiting for a disposition of his criminal case for about a year and a half, and hoping for some justice, as he envisions it, for as long. In the weeks and months leading up to last Friday’s Buffalo City Court date, he was expecting a resolution. But by the beginning of last week, he knew this wasn’t going to happen. He’d been warned by his lawyers that they would ask the court for additional time to prepare a motion to dismiss the case. Friday morning, Judge Joseph Fiorella granted them until the end of August to file it and asked the prosecutor to respond by September 21, or sooner if possible.

It was in April of 2011 that Buckley, who’s 26, was arrested by Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority Police in front of the M&T Bank complex on Main Street in downtown Buffalo. After several charging changes, he’s now accused of misdemeanor trespass, obstructing governmental administration, and resisting arrest. Two other young men arrested at the same time were acquitted earlier this year of similar charges in city court. All three were part of a traveling anti-war demonstration of perhaps 100 people that had peacefully moved throughout the downtown area before it ended up at the M&T facility, where about half that number heard calls for the bank to end its financial ties to war contractors. Transit police, summoned by an employee of a security firm working for the bank, intervened to break up the demonstration and wound up beating, pepper spraying and arresting Buckley. A cellphone video of the arrest has been viewed 125,000 times online and has figured in the case.

Buckley’s case went to trial in June and had progressed to jury deliberations when a bizarre incident involving a juror who sent a request to Judge Fiorella about a personal matter abruptly ended the trial. So Buckley’s back in court. “I’d like to say I was surprised, but it seems this is standard operating procedure [in the justice system],” he said in a phone message this week, sounding a little weary. Last year, he was offered a plea bargain by the district attorney, but he and his attorneys rejected it because it required an admission of guilt. Buckley has consistently denied all the charges.

In the courtroom Friday, his new lawyers, Daire Bryan Irwin and Michael Kuzma, indicated they intended to file a motion to dismiss these charges. Assistant District Attorney and chief of the DA’s City Court Bureau Susan Sadinsky told Fiorella that her office opposed allowing the defense to do this. “That motion has already been before this court,” she told Fiorella. Buckley’s previous attorney, Leigh Anderson, had moved to have the case dismissed last year and Fiorella denied the motion. Turning toward Sadinsky, Irwin told her, “I promise I won’t just be spinning my wheels.” He and Kuzma contend they can file a new motion in a new trial, regardless of this, and that they can bring new arguments and evidence to bear on the matter.

Kuzma told Artvoice this week that he and Irwin will be arguing for dismissal based on “an insufficiency of the charges,” and, quoting a statutory standard, “in the furtherance of justice.” Sources with knowledge of the case said that the defense may question the adequacy of the trespass charge both factually and legally, challenging the legal basis for the arrest in the first place. The much-viewed video will probably be submitted in evidence, as it was in the first, uncompleted trial. It appears to show Buckley standing passively on the sidewalk as he’s confronted by two transit cops, before he’s struck with a baton and sprayed with chemicals.

Demonstrators there that day have said they complied with a request to leave the bank’s courtyard before the arrests were made. Buckley’s father, John Buckley, a demonstration participant, told Artvoice that the protest had moved without problems over four downtown sites and it was only at the bank that it met with hostility and trouble.

One of the three NFTA cops at the scene was Adam Brodsky, who was involved two years ago in a confrontation at the downtown bus terminal when he arrested a man he charged with illegally using a restroom and then resisting arrest, charges that brought a complete acquittal from City Court Judge James McCleod.

One veteran lawyer who knows Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita, and who didn’t want to be identified, expressed puzzlement at what he regards as the DA’s stubborn insistence on pursuing this case when public safety and justice don’t require it. Another, also speaking anonymously, who has worked in both the DA’s office and in private practice, said he believes Sedita is insecure about his reputation, particularly after losing the Dr. James Corasanti case. According to this observer, the DA has become more rigid and demanding, trying to pressure both defense lawyers and judges into accepting unattractive plea bargains, knowing that both courts and lawyers frequently need to move cases quickly. Also, he noted, “Once things get heated” in a case where police decisions have been questioned, “you have to have a show of authority.” (A call to the DA’s office for comment went unreturned.)

Buckley says he worries about the chilling effect on the exercise of speech and assembly rights the police and prosecutor’s responses will have: “If you go to speak out, go out to protest something, will you come out if you can get beaten by police? Will people hesitate, be afraid?”

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