Political stunts in New York City have historically not resulted in maximum penalties from judges and juries, which will likely be the case for Statue of Liberty climber Therese Patricia Okoumou, according to a legal expert.
Assessed with misdemeanor charges of trespassing, interference with government agency functions and disorderly conduct, Okoumou was released on her own recognizance after she pleaded not guilty in federal court Thursday.
Okoumou, who climbed to the base of the Statue of Liberty on July 4 to protest the Trump administration’s now-reversed “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that led to widespread family separations, does not have a First Amendment defense, since she “violated laws to make a political point,” according to Bennett Capers, criminal law professor at Brooklyn Law School. Okoumou’s protest, which U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman called a “dangerous stunt,” led to the evacuation of Liberty Island and response from a 16-member Emergency Service Unit of the NYPD.
Unofficially, however, the judicial system could still acknowledge her intent. “It’s likely that a judge will think ‘okay, I understand what you were doing; you weren’t [climbing the Statue of Liberty] for any nefarious reasons,’” Capers said via telephone Friday.
He invoked other examples in New York City’s history, when climbers have scaled public and private buildings either to make a statement, or in high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s case, just because.
Now immortalized in the 2008 documentary “Man on Wire” and 2015 thriller “The Walk,” Petit’s walk between the Twin Towers in downtown Manhattan in 1974 led to him being taken away in handcuffs, according to a New York Times report. Eventually, Manhattan District Attorney Richard H. Kuh dropped the charges. Petit’s punishment? He had to give a free aerial performance in Central Park, the New York Times reported.
More recently, a climber who scaled the New York Times building to call attention to global warming in 2008, Alain Robert, got off with three days of community service and $250 in fines, according to a New York Times report. A grand jury dismissed all criminal charges against him, the Times reported.
In 2016, 19-year-old Stephen Rogata of Virginia scaled more than 20 stories of Trump Tower with large suction cups before being arrested and charged with reckless endangerment and disorderly conduct. By agreeing to stipulations delineated in a plea deal, which included getting mental health treatment and avoiding arrest for a year, Rogata managed to skirt jail time.
“The [prosecutors] realized that what these people did, while technically violating the law, wasn’t really that bad,” Capers said. Extrapolating to Okoumou’s case, which is being prosecuted by the U.S. attorney’s office, Capers added, “I wouldn’t be surprised in this case if a deal is worked out [instead of jail time].”
Other possible courses of action include dropping the charges altogether or deferred prosecution, wherein Okoumou would agree to certain conditions set by Berman’s office, ranging from imposed fines to agreeing to stay out of trouble for a certain period of time, Capers said.
As for jail time, Capers argued that the outcry that would result from Okoumou being jailed would be enough to deter the prosecution from taking that route. “That’s not really on the table,” he said.
“What purpose would it serve to send her to jail? Would that discourage people from scaling the Statue of Liberty?” Capers asked, adding that he doesn’t see a verdict explicitly aimed toward deterring future climbers being sought in this case.
Owning her stunt, Okoumou, who is due back in court on Aug. 3, channeled Michelle Obama during a news conference following her release Thursday.
“Michelle Obama, our beloved first lady that I care so much about, said, ‘When they go low, we go high,’ and I went as high as I could.”