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Lawyer Defending Protester Of 'Straight Pride' Parade Held In Contempt At Boston Court

Susan Church, left, and fellow attorney Derege Demissie, in 2015. (Stephan Savoia/AP)
Susan Church, left, and fellow attorney Derege Demissie, in 2015. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

A defense attorney was taken into custody and taken to a holding cell for several hours at Boston Municipal Court after a judge found her in contempt of court Wednesday morning.

Susan Church, a prominent Cambridge-based immigration lawyer, was in court to represent at least one client who was arrested by Boston police during the controversial so-called "Straight Pride" parade and counter-protests on Saturday.

Church was reading case law in support of prosecutors' requests to dismiss cases of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest connected to the demonstrations, according to defense lawyers in the courtroom.

Suffolk County Judge Richard Sinnott — who surprised prosecutors and defense attorneys on Tuesday by rejecting the prosecutors' dismissal motions — ordered Church held as she was speaking.

Church was released at around 2:15 p.m. and at a press conference shortly after, she called the judge's order against her "outrageous."

"My biggest concern is this doesn't have a chilling effect for all the other lawyers out there who are fighting the good fight, and who are representing people and doing their jobs," Church told reporters. "This was outrageous behavior."

Her lawyer, Max Stern, also spoke.

"She wasn't disruptive — at all, and she was let out of the courtroom in shackles," Stern said. "This is extraordinary ... [I've] never heard of anything quite like this, where someone is shackled and taken away because of an argument that she made."

Sinnott, a 2017 appointee by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, was criticized by some legal experts Tuesday after his unexpected decisions to ignore the Suffolk County prosecutors' case dismissal requests.

Like Church, Jeff Feuer is representing those who protested the parade as a member of the National Lawyers Guild of Massachusetts, and he was also inside the courtroom Wednesday.

Feuer characterized Sinnott's move to ignore prosecutors' wishes as "extremely rare," and added he believed it was an unusual step for a judge to jail a defense lawyer.

"When [Church] tried to read case law into the record and explain to him what the case law was from the higher appellate courts here, [Judge Sinnott] refused to listen to her," Feuer explained, "[and] told her if she didn't stop talking he would take her into custody and charge her with contempt."

Sinnott rejected at least seven of the prosecutors' motions to dismiss charges Tuesday against the protesters. One of the defense attorneys for those arraigned Wednesday said Judge Sinnott did, however, accept motions from prosecutors to drop charges in at least six of those cases.

Jennifer Donahue, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Trial Court and the state's Supreme Judicial Court, told WBUR that lawyers have not filed any appeals of Judge Sinnott's decisions.

"These are pending matters, and Judge Sinnott declines comment," Donahue said in a statement.

Former U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner told Radio Boston Tuesday that Sinnott overstepped his boundaries by doing so and viewed his actions a direct push back against policies put in place by Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins.

Rollins' much-discussed policies revolve around not prosecuting certain low-level offenses, like shoplifting and trespassing. It is not uncommon for charges closely associated with protests, like disorderly conduct, to be dismissed by courts.

As WBUR previously reported, Rollins tweeted a statement Tuesday saying that while some of the more serious charges against the 36 people charged in connection to the parade and demonstrations should stick, she believes Sinnott is punishing some of the accused for exercising their First Amendment rights to protest.

In a statement, ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose said, "We are deeply troubled by the events of the last 48 hours, and are proud to represent Susan Church in this matter.”

With additional reporting from WBUR's Paul Connearney, Jon Cain and Walter Wuthmann

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