SANTA ANA — Prosecutors and defense attorneys both argued free-speech rights Wednesday during opening statements of the criminal trial against 10 Muslim college students accused of plotting to disrupt a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States.
Prosecutors claimed that the so-called Irvine 11 "shut down" Ambassador Michael Oren, which prevented him from freely exchanging ideas with those who came to hear him speak atUC Irvine.
Defense attorneys argued that the students expressed political views in a legal protest and that prosecuting them infringes on their rights.
Deputy District Attorney Dan Wagner said that on Feb. 8, 2010, the defendants orchestrated a protest that interrupted Oren's speech every few seconds with the shouting of scripted lines and calling him a war criminal.
"They didn't want to have an exchange of ideas to see who was telling the truth and who was not," Wagner said. "What their intention was, make no mistake, was to shut him [Oren] down."
Wagner presented jurors with a "batting order" of what prosecutors claim was the planned conspiracy for the protestors to end Oren's speech.
"Usually people in society know what is and isn't expected … and it happens in this case there were pretty explicit rules given before the talk," Wagner said, adding that students were informed that, "'Yes, we expect civil debate on campus and we relish that. … But we will expect nothing less than civility and courtesy that is becoming this situation.'"
The first of the six defense attorneys, Daniel Mayfield, addressed jurors with a word written in green: "time."
He told jurors about the time Oren took to visit the university, and the time the defendants had to plan their protest within the limits of the law. He told jurors that the speech was 30 minutes late, independent of the student protest, and lasted a minute.
Defense attorney Reem Salahi then recited to the jury what the students said, including, "Michael Oren, propagating murder is not free speech," before she painted a picture of students whose concern was human rights.
"The question before you is whether these students committed crimes when they discussed logistics and how to protest Ambassador Oren," she told the jurors, adding the students did it "peacefully albeit rudely before walking out."
Two other defense attorneys said they would wait to make their opening statements.
Before court proceedings, four members of the Southern California inter-faith community, a UCI professor and a defendant's father addressed the media, saying that Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas was selectively prosecuting the students for political reasons and singling them out based on their faith.
"This smells of persecution," said Father Wilfredo Benitez, rector of the Saint Anselm of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Garden Grove. "In a free country ... this should simply not be happening."
Moutaz Herzallah, whose son Taher is among the defendants, said Rackauckas "threw the [U.S.] Constitution in the trash" when he decided to press charges.
Moutaz Herzallah, who is from Gaza, said he immigrated to the United States "to have peace, dignity and honor" and that the D.A. should be prosecuted for his disregard of the Constitution.
Representatives from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, LA Jews for Peace and the Muslim Public Affairs Council also were at the trial to support the defendants.
The initial pool of about 300 potential jurors was winnowed to the final panel after six days. They completed an eight-page questionnaire asking them whether they studied at UCI and if they had strong feelings about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The 10 students from UCI and UC Riverside are charged with two misdemeanor counts of disturbing assembly and conspiracy to commit a crime.
Charges were tentatively dropped against an 11th defendant, Hakim Nasreddine Kebir, who is expected to complete 40 hours of community service at the Someone Cares Soup Kitchen in Costa Mesa.
The remaining defendants face up to six months in jail if convicted of the two misdemeanor charges. The trial is expected to last through September.