Prosecutors dropped disorderly conduct charges Wednesday against anti-war protesters Jeff Zurawski of Downers Grove and Sarah Hartfield of Naperville.
Bev Horne/June 2007
Fed up with the war in Iraq, Sarah Hartfield and Jeff Zurawski unfurled a banner along a DuPage County overpass to share their views with motorists traveling along a bustling highway.
They insisted it was a peaceful demonstration but both were arrested in a criminal case that sparked a fervor among anti-war advocates who accused authorities of trampling on the Constitution.
Fifteen months after the saga began, prosecutors dropped the charges Wednesday after the trucker who called 911 to complain that day didn't show up for court to testify at trial.
DuPage Associate Judge Ronald Sutter denied the prosecution's request for a continuance, forcing them to dismiss the disorderly conduct allegation for lack of evidence.
Afterward, roughly 50 supporters seated in the courtroom gallery rose to their feet in thunderous applause.
"I'm supposed to feel relieved and I do a little bit," said Zurawski of Downers Grove, "but I'm still troubled that this ever happened. We deserve the right to express an opinion without being dragged into the legal system. Having been led away from my home in handcuffs, after doing nothing wrong, still burns a bit."
Zurawski, 40, and his friend, Hartfield, 46, of Naperville, were arrested two weeks after their May 6, 2007, demonstration.
They road their bikes to a pedestrian bridge that spans I-355 near Glen Ellyn and unfurled a large banner that read: "Impeach Bush and Cheney - liars." They also displayed an upside-down American flag for about 90 minutes.
Weeks later, a DuPage County sheriff's deputy pursued the misdemeanor charge after he said a passing trucker complained. Initially, prosecutors alleged the pair tossed something onto the roadway, causing motorists to swerve. Later, though, the charge was amended to suggest they made a "throwing motion."
The protesters deny pretending to or actually throwing anything. Rather, both said they were prosecuted because of their political beliefs.
But DuPage State's Attorney Joseph Birkett said the charges had nothing to do with politics.
"This was a traffic hazard," he said. "That's why we went forward with the complaint. I respect every person's First Amendment right. I don't think we should ever take any steps to curtail that. This had only to do with traffic safety on a highway.
"You can't yell fire in a crowd and you can't hang a very large display over a highway like that. It's just unsafe."
Naperville attorney Shawn Collins represented Hartfield and Zurawski for free. Collins said he was confident they would have won had the case went to trial.
"I took this case because I felt what happened to them was wrong," Collins said.
Groups such as DuPage Against War Now and the DuPage Peace Through Justice Coalition became involved. The case sparked letter-writing campaigns, petition drives, Internet forum debates from folks as far away as Australia, Britain, China, Ireland and the U.K.
Several small protests were conducted outside the Wheaton courthouse.
The protesters said they plan to continue participating in peaceful demonstrations.