The trial for two gay Army officers arrested for chaining themselves to the White House fence in protest over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was cancelled Wednesday after charges were dropped in the case.
On the scheduled trial date, prosecutor Christine Chang announced before the D.C. Superior Court that the government was dropping the charges against Lt. Dan Choi and Capt. Jim Pietrangelo II for their acts of civil disobedience.
Choi and Pietrangelo had faced penalties stemming for chaining themselves to the White House gates March 18 and April 20. The Army officers were charged with two counts of a failure to obey a lawful order and could have been fined up to $1,000 for their offense.
Following the court appearance, Chang told the Blade the U.S. attorney’s office is “not proceeding with the case at this time,” but declined to comment on why the charges were dropped.
Mark Goldstone, a local attorney representing Choi and Pietrangelo in court, said he was “shocked” the U.S. Attorney’s office decided to dismiss the charges.
Goldstone said he suspected someone from the White House called the U.S. Attorney’s office Wednesday to cancel the trial for “purely political reasons.”
“I think they’re embarassed about defending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which is an abomination,” Goldstone said.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, told the Blade that the White House had no involvement in dropping the charges against Choi and Pietrangelo.
Following the trial, Choi said his efforts to draw attention to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were not “just for a sound bite” or “to get famous.”
Had the trial proceeded, Choi said he would have talked about how “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” affects LGBT service members and how “people are dying because they kill themselves” under the current law.
At several points during his coming out process, Choi said he wanted to “put a bullet” into his West Point pistol and shoot himself.
“You know all of the consequences of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” Choi said. “You’re not just getting fired from your job, it’s not just a national security issue, and it’s not just a matter of taxpayer money. It’s really about the enforced shame that it causes.”
Pietrangelo said after his court appearance he wasn’t surprised that the U.S. Attorney office’s dismissed the charges because he’s “absolutely confident that we had justice on our side.”
“We won even before we went into the court room is how I felt,” Pietrangelo said. “We were prepared to litigate the whole dirty mess that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is.”
Pietrangelo said he intends to participate in further acts of civil disobedience to keep drawing attention to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but declined to offer any details about his plans.
Litigation in the courts and legislation in Congress is pending that could lead to repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The House and a Senate committee in May approved a measure that would lead to the end of the law, and people following Capitol Hill expect the full Senate to take up the issue within months.
Still, Choi said the administration has been “more than incompetent” and “unwilling” to follow through with President Obama’s promise to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Choi said he plans to continue participating in acts of civil disobedience as long as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” remains in effect and everyone needs to step up to their responsibility.
Asked whether he would return to the White House, Choi replied, “Let me just say going to jail and being shackled up is nothing compared to allowing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ to exist on the books.” He declined to elaborate further on his plans.
Paul Yandura, a gay D.C. activist and organizer with GetEqual, which helped organize the protests, noted the officers who arrested Choi and Pietrangelo came to the court on the scheduled date of the trial, suggesting the U.S. Attorney’s office was prepared to have them testify.
Yandura said activists following the court apperance asked the prosecutor whether she was prepared for the case and Chang responded she was prepared but couldn’t provide further comment.
“Someone told her at the last minute to drop all charges,” Yandura said. “It’s probably because it’s an embarassment that repeal’s not done. … They just decided to shut this down before we had two trials talking about ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.'”
Yandura also noted that the stay-away order precluding Choi and Pietrangelo from approaching the White House has been lifted, meaning both men engage in further acts of civil disobedience there.
Goldstone said he had planned to present at trial evidence that included previous public statements from Obama asking for continued pressure to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“Obama needed proof of agitations … for political cover,” Goldstone said. “Dan and Jim took his command as a direct command.”
Activists affiliated with GetEqual had presented Obama with a subpoena to testify on behalf of Choi and Pietrangelo during the trial. Neither the president nor any White House official was seen at court during the scheduled day for the trial.
Goldstone said he didn’t plan to present any other witnesses at the trial because he said Choi and Pietrangelo are the “best possible spokespersons” on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Among those who made an appearance in court on the scheduled trial date were Robin McGehee, co-founder of GetEqual, as well as Anthony Woods, a gay Army officer discharged in 2008 under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and who unsuccessfully ran to represent California in Congress earlier this year.
McGehee said civil disobedience won out in this case and charges were dropped because the White House didn’t want the attention on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“Dan and Jim got what they wanted, which was to apply the pressure and to draw attention to the issue,” she said.
Woods said he wanted to attend the scheduled trial as a “show of solidarity” for Choi; he and Choi graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2003.
“I think he knows there are very real consequences to what he’s doing, which makes what he’s doing that much more heroic,” Woods said.