“We must hang together, gentlemen…else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.”
The prosecution presented its case first as I recall. This consisted of the testimony of four members of the Department of Homeland Security’s border patrol. These guards were all twenty-something years of age. Peter Watts was charged under Michigan law for “resisting an officer.”
I was a little surprised initially that the guard who had punched and pepper-sprayed Peter sat at the assistant DA’s table for the duration (except when testifying himself). This turned out to be because as the prosecutor’s office viewed it, he was the victim, and as the defense viewed it, the accuser.
One guard, a young woman, was the most matter-of-fact about it all. As previously noted, there had been a moment, when she said that she had grasped Peter’s wrist and he had gently pulled away. I thought his goose was cooked right then, but I did not let on. I found out later that she had the option of staying for the entire trial but elected to return to work instead. The other three stayed.
The basic order of events I will lay out below.
Peter (who sometimes teaches at the Univerisity of Toronto), another professor from the University of Toronto who had found a job in the US, and a grad student, all drove together into the US in order to help the unnamed professor move. This happened in late November.
Once that was done, and Peter and the grad student had gone through two additional rental cars as a result of the first two developing problems, they found themselves crossing out of Port Huron, Michigan and into Sarnia, Ontario. This delayed their return to Canada by a couple of days, one for each car as I understood it. Rather than attempt to pass back to Canada on December 6, 2009, they were delayed until the 8th. (Again, that later coincides with the release of the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive.)
They passed through the US side exit booth without incident. As they drove on towards the Canadian side, a border guard waved at them to pull over. Peter mistook this wave as “goodbye” and drove a bit further before his traveling companion said, “I think she wants you to pull over.”
At this point they were essentially in traffic and on a bridge. Peter stopped the car. In his words, several border guards swarmed the car, asked him to open the trunk and began searching the vehicle. At no time was he told, “This is an exit search.”
At some point in the weeks after the incident, they added a sign stating that exit searches were a possibility and that DHS reserved the right to do so.
This became a point of contention because searches are typically done by the country one is entering, which in this case would be Canada. A few inaccurate news reports that he had been trying to enter the US appeared on the Internet.
There was also some questionable testimony in that at least one or two guards maintained that exit searches had been in effect for four years when a later discovered DHS memo indicated it had only been four months. As noted earlier, one article regarding the incident and searches in general cited a DHS manager who said, “Of course we want to be talking to people before we search their vehicles.”
The guards in their testimony stated that the stop was random and that they had been doing similar searches that day and previously.
The situation on the bridge degraded rapidly. Peter got out of the car to observe the search. He was given near-simultaneous conflicting commands: get back in the car and put your hands on the car. That was when an officer reached to handcuff Peter, and according to Peter did not make that intention clear, and he gently pulled his hand away reflexively.
One male guard, the accuser, charged from eighty or so yards away, punched and pepper-sprayed Peter. Peter got back into the car at that point and the guard pulled him back out. He was arrested and spent a day or two in DHS custody and then another couple in the county jail before Cory Doctorow got the word out and Peter made bail (or at least that is how I remember it). His companion, the grad student, was handcuffed at the scene to a railing.
During all of the guard testimony, I observed the body language. The one female guard was the most matter-of-fact and cool on the stand compared to the others, but even she seemed to be nervous and concerned about the male guard’s gaze from the prosecution table mere feet away. The others constantly looked to him for approval nearly before and after every question. There was the “blue wall” thing happening right before my eyes. Of course, having been pumped with the “pure euphoria”, turned up to twenty with the knob yanked off, I put as positive a spin on this as possible in my mind. They were concerned about their co-worker, their “big brother” so to speak.
I was wrong, of course. A later, calmer, cooler analysis of what I saw was that they were mostly scared shitless of him. He was pressuring them to “stick to the story,” whatever that may have been.
One thing that was never clear was, why did he seem to take it so personally? This is just a hunch, but I’m guessing the same people who engineered this situation also pulled some harsh pranks on him that he assumed Peter or his friends might have been responsible for. They may have made the seeming Internet feud between him and Watts (it was never clear who some of the hostiles were) seem bigger than it was, maybe even did a little cyber harassment to the guard which it would have been easy enough to lay at the feet of Cory Doctorow (having friends in the high tech arena). This is, after all, what they later tried to convince me of.
This checking with the accuser for approval continued. The other male guard was sweating profusely and even shaking a bit. He did not want to displease this guard. Likewise, the other female guard, who seemed to be enjoying all of this for the thrill, looked to him for approval several times.
Also, when the defense cross examination began, both the accuser and this female guard gave Peter’s attorney a rather difficult way to pronounce their last names. I expect this was a rather amateurish attempt at psychological warfare.
The defense began their case. For that, both Peter and the grad student testified.
The grad student was very brave. I say that because he was clearly also scared shitless and yet he came back to that town and testified anyway. He did fine and really there were no particularly dramatic gaffes during the whole trial. It essentially came down to, was twelve seconds enough time under those circumstances (conflicting commands) to have gotten back into the car?
When Watts testified there was a little bit of sparring going on between him and the Assistant DA, though even that was minor. When she asked how tall he was (subtext: “your height makes you intimidating”), his reply was, “About two meters” (subtext: “I’m a Canuck, and though we both speak a similar dialect of English, there are cultural differences”).
There was also a question put to Peter about maintaining order, since Peter occasionally teaches classes. Apparently these can be very casual affairs, so attempting to equate sitting in neat little rows with crossing a border was not working with Peter Watts. They sit on the floor and in window sills, he said.
It also came out, as I mentioned earlier in this book, that Canadian law enforcement still tends to have drivers get out of their cars during a stop. In the US, and I recall what lead up to the change, this practice ended in the mid to late 70s or so. There had been several incidents where police had been overpowered by people they pulled over. In one especially dramatic case, three men had stomped a Tennessee state trooper and left “bloody footprints” all over the scene.
Surveillance video was aired on a large screen for the jury to watch. Truly, I had trouble making heads or tails of most of it. Several figures moving back and forth. No facial expressions to see given the distance and graininess. Even most gestures were lost in the pixeled-down version of events.
Throughout all of this, I think there may have only been one or two objections at most. I found this surprising and was told by Peter’s attorney later that he and the Assistant DA had decided to make this a non-confrontational trial and to cooperate at getting to the truth of the matter.
Presiding over the trial was an amazing judge. A proud septuagenarian Michigander of Irish descent, he even wore a green plastic bowler while the jury was deliberating on St. Partick’s Day. I was fascinated by the man and a short speech he gave about the great “melting pot” that he said he always gives at the start of his cases and it tends to bring tears to his eyes. Between that and his unbelievable fairness and clarity when handling the jury, I decided to start taking a closer look at the decorations in his courtroom.
There were photos of several famous and accomplished Irishmen. Then there was also this, at the back wall, dead center:
“I think the first duty of society is justice.”