Six clergymen who were found guilty of trespassing in the Missouri Senate gallery after they protested Missouri’s failure to expand Medicaid were sentenced today to one year of unsupervised probation.
The six, including well-known Kansas City clergymen Sam Mann, Wallace Hartzfield Sr. and Vernon P. Howard Jr., were part of the so-called Medicaid 23, who were charged with trespassing and obstructing government operations after leading a group of about 300 protestors in the Senate gallery three years ago.
The 23, some of them septuagenarians, urged lawmakers to expand Medicaid benefits to 300,000 low-income Missourians. Missouri remains one of 19 states that have not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
The case became something of a cause célèbre, with critics questioning why the state was criminalizing a peaceful protest. The 23 faced up to six months in jail.
In an unusual mass trial last year, a Cole County jury found 22 of them guilty of trespassing, a misdemeanor, but acquitted them of obstructing government operations. The jury recommended no jail time but the defendants faced judge-imposed fines of up to $500.
Sixteen of them later sought and received pardons from outgoing Gov. Jay Nixon. The others refused to ask for pardons, saying they had done nothing wrong.
In sentencing them Thursday, Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green said their previous sentences were excessive but warned them not to repeat the conduct of which they were found guilty.
Nimrod Chapel, an attorney who represented the six, said the defendants weren’t seeking to break the law but rather “to demonstrate their commitment to humanity.”
“Now the question is, how will we as Americans be able to interface with our Legislature?” he said in remarks outside the courthouse after the sentencing. “Will we be allowed to pray? Will we be allowed to seek redress?”
Chapel expressed his appreciation toward Judge Green, whom he thanked for “doing his duty as a member of the judiciary and upholding the fine tradition of allowing law to not dictate irrational outcomes.”
One other clergyman, Jessie Fisher of Kansas City, was not present in the courtroom. His sentencing was postponed until May 24.
Dan Margolies is KCUR’s health editor. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.