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Judge won't jail Statue of Liberty climber ahead of sentencing

U.S. Magistrate Gabriel Gorenstein instead ordered electronic monitoring and home detention until Patricia Okoumou's sentencing. 

Patricia Okoumou of Staten Island, who climbed to

Patricia Okoumou of Staten Island, who climbed to the base of the Statue of Liberty last summer to protest U.S. immigration policy, participates in the Families Belong Together Rally in Huntington Station on Feb. 10. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

A Manhattan federal magistrate on Friday refused to jail Statue of Liberty climber Patricia Okoumou for violating her bail conditions by getting arrested in another protest of immigration policies while awaiting sentencing.

U.S. Magistrate Gabriel Gorenstein described her as a professional protester who made her living by lawbreaking to get publicity to earn donations, and instead ordered electronic monitoring and home detention until her sentencing on March 19.

“I am hopeful that Ms. Okoumou may feel that the risk to her from committing another crime in the next three weeks is something she will not want to take,” Gorenstein said.

Okoumou, who threatened to go on a hunger strike if jailed, said afterward — as she has before — that she would obey bail conditions that prohibit her from breaking the law. “I don’t think he sees me as a criminal,” she told reporters outside the courtroom.

A naturalized immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Okoumou, 45, of Staten Island, was convicted in December of trespass and other charges for scaling the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal last July Fourth to protest Trump administration family separation policies, leading to a Liberty Island evacuation.

She faces up to 18 months in prison, but prosecutors asked Gorenstein to immediately jail her after her arrest last week  in Austin, Texas, for trespass for scaling a building occupied by Southwest Key, an organization housing detained immigrant children, and refusing to leave.

They said her July Fourth protest had come just after a state court dismissed a minor charge from another protest on condition she not break the law again, and that since her conviction French officials twice had to remove her from the Eiffel Tower, in addition to her Texas arrest.

“Enough is enough,” prosecutor Bret Kalikow told the judge in a courtroom filled with about 40 Okoumou supporters who had staged a rally outside before the hearing began.

Defense lawyer Ron Kuby argued that Okoumou — an ex-personal trainer who wore a trademark colorful outfit emblazoned with political slogans — wasn’t a threat. “Protesting is not yet a crime,” he said. “Her intention is to shine a light on some of the darker corners of this country.”

Gorenstein complained that she didn’t understand that her climbing exploits posed risks to first responders and bystanders, that she couldn’t be trusted because she already violated bail conditions that she had agreed to, and that she appeared to make her living off donations.

“She needs publicity to get these donations, and her method of getting publicity is to break the law,” the judge said.

When Kuby — a liberal legal icon — said he suspected the government was being especially tough because of the substance of her protests, Gorenstein said the response would be the same if she had scaled the Statue of Liberty to protest abortion rights.

“I think we would all be in the same courtroom,” he said, “though you might not be at the [defense] table.”

In addition to home detention, Gorenstein also ordered Okoumou to look for a job, but he made no promises about her liberty after March 19, telling Kuby. “I have not made any decision on sentencing.”

On Wednesday, Gorenstein visited Liberty Island to view the surroundings to help him decide on a sentence. Okoumou was present at the site visit but didn’t speak, nor did she say anything to the judge during Friday’s hearing.

But at a news conference after she was outfitted with her electronic ankle bracelet — which Kuby called a “slave bracelet” — Okoumou was asked whether she would commit to no longer break the law.

“No comment,” she said. "How's that for an answer?"

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