March 19, 2010 at 5:39 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Gay soldier, vet seek trial for White House arrest

U.S. Army Lt. Dan Choi and Army veteran Jim Pietrangelo, who were arrested for handcuffing themselves to the White House fence in a protest against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” pleaded not guilty Friday in court.

During separate arraignments in D.C. Superior Court, the two gay men requested a trial and rejected an offer by the D.C. Attorney General’s office that they pay a $100 fine to end the case in a plea bargain arrangement known as post-and-forfeit.

The two were charged with failing to obey a lawful order to disperse after they handcuffed themselves to the White House fence Thursday along Pennsylvania Avenue. Lesbian activist Robin McGhee, who joined Choi and Pietrangelo in the White House protest, was arrested on the same charge after refusing to leave the area near the fence.

McGehee agreed to a post-and-forfiet plea and was released Thursday evening. U.S. Secret Service officers, who arrested her outside the White House, brought her to the First District D.C. police station, and D.C. police processed her arrested and extended the post-and-forfiet offer.

U.S. Park Police, who arrested Choi and Pietrangelo, processed their arrest at a Park Police facility and held both men overnight at the D.C. Central Cellblock until they were arraigned Friday.

A Park Police spokesperson said the decision to hold both men overnight was based on procedures related to their residence and identification documents. Spokesperson Dave Schlosser said Pietrangelo did not have any identification in his possession, and noted both men were from outside the D.C. metroplitan area: Choi from New York and Pietrangelo from Ohio.

Choi and Pietrangelo’s decision to request a trial came as a surprise to about a dozen activists who attended the proceeding. The activists, some of whom were arrested Thursday during a separate protest at the U.S. Capitol in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, each agreed to the accept post-and-forfeit pleas, which has become the standard practice of most arrested Washington protestors.

Choi and Pietrangelo’s decision places the D.C. government in the position of having to prosecute the two men in what has become a highly publicized LGBT rights case. Under D.C. law, the city attorney general’s office prosecutes most misdemeanor cases under the direction of D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles.

Nickles received praise from LGBT activists this year for filing strongly worded court briefs defending the city’s same-sex marriage law against lawsuits brought against the law by a Maryland minister.

Although post-and-forfeit pleas are not considered guilty pleas, defense attorneys say the move amounts to not contesting a charge. The practice benefits both sides in the courtroom equation: prosecutors avoid the costs associated with trial, and defendants need not fear being found guilty during trial.

“I knew there’s no reason for me to say that I’m guilty,” Choi said after the court hearing. “I don’t think that I should feel guilty and I don’t think I should say I’m guilty. I want to have my day in court.”

The White House protest drew national attention and seemed to overshadow a separate rally against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at Freedom Plaza, just blocks from the White House. The Human Rights Campaign and comedian Kathy Griffin organized the rally and said they were unaware of plans for the White House action until Choi, who spoke at the rally, called on the crowed to march with him to the White House.

Judge Jose Lopez released Choi and Pietrangelo on their own recognizance, and set an April 26 court date for either a trial or pre-trial hearing in their cases.

He told both men that although the maximum sentence for the charge they face is a $1,000 fine, the two men could be subjected to imprisonment if they fail to show up for scheduled court appearances.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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