A jury on Wednesday found three homeless advocates guilty of multiple charges for trying to camp outside the City and County Building and in another part of downtown.
A short time later, Denver County Court Judge Kerri Lombardi said she didn’t believe fines or jail time were appropriate in the case and instead ordered Burton, Howard and Russell to complete probation that includes public service.
“These are very sad and tragic cases,” Lombardi said.
Jerry Burton, Terese Howard and Randy Russell have all spoken out against a city ordinance that prohibits people from camping on public property – arguing that it endangers homeless people.
All three were ticketed last year after setting up blankets and sleeping bags outside city hall, and two of them were cited in a separate incident near the corner of 27th and Arapahoe Streets.\
At one point during deliberations, members of the jury told Judge Kerri they wondered whether – if they found the defendants guilty – could they pay the fines?
Lombardi refused to answer.
The jury found Burton guilty of unauthorized camping at the two different sites and of interference with a police officer. He was found not guilty of a second count of interference. Burton had prior arrests for failure to appear, disorderly conduct, harassment, and domestic violence among other charges.
"I was kind of shocked, I thought a human being would show compassion," said Burton of the jury's decision. "Cause I wasn't camping. I was surviving, because I knew I had no other place to go. I couldn't go to the shelter. so I had to survive on the streets."
The jury found Howard guilty of unauthorized camping outside city hall and interference with a police officer. Howard had prior arrests for trespassing and vagrancy.
Russell was found guilty of unauthorized camping at the two different locations, and of interference with a police officer. He was found not guilty of a second count of interference.
"I knew I was guilty when I was doing it. I was just trying to survive the weather," said Randy Russell. "I wasn't going to be out there not covering myself up and freezing to death."
Howard was placed on unsupervised probation for one year, Burton and Russell for six months. All three have to complete community service.
The camping ban has been highly controversial.
One person was escorted from court after yelling “I want you to recuse yourself!” to the judge. There were several outbursts in court – people saying system is “f-ed up.”
During sentencing, Russell said, “When y'all go home enjoy your beds ... I will be on the street again tonight."
City officials have said there is enough space in shelters to house Denver's homeless population.
The Denver City Attorney's office released the following statement after the verdicts.
The tickets and this case are uncommon as the three individuals were acting in protest, and sought arrest in order to challenge the camping ordinance in court.
The city’s approach to enforcing the camping ordinance has been and will continue to be to connect those who are living on the streets with the help that they need like housing, a job and healthcare. If that doesn't work, people are given notice and warnings multiple times before any enforcement action is taken. Issuing tickets, as was the case here, is a last resort but a necessary action if individuals are knowingly violating the law and unwilling to comply.
The City Attorney’s Office recommended no fine or jail time, only probation and community service. The Judge agreed.