By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
|Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov|
On June 30, TV news crews crowded in front of the federal courthouse on Spring Street, but no one who worked in the austere old building could say who the fuss was for — there were so many big names in trouble these days. It was a safe bet, though, that the cameras were not here for the United States v. Sherman Martin Austin, an obscure case scheduled to conclude that day after a year and a half of Kafkaesque twists. The 20-year-old Austin faced a single felony count of “distribution of information relating to explosives, destructive devices, and weapons of mass destruction with the intent that such information be used in furtherance of a federal crime of violence.” Outside of the local anarchist community and some Internet chat rooms, his case is virtually unknown.
In January 2002, Austin, then 18, was living at his mother’s rented Sherman Oaks house, described in the FBI’s search warrant as “a single-story family residence, with white stucco sidings, a red brick front, and a light brown shingle roof.” For nearly a year, according to the FBI, Austin and Raisethefist.com, the anarchist Web site he ran from his bedroom, had been under a government microscope. This, allegedly, was due to RTF’s incendiary language and links to other Web sites that translate such rhetoric into bomb-making instructions. The government’s curiosity was further piqued by Internet chatter, traced back to Austin’s site, that boasted of defacing other Web sites and illegally probing an Army computer system.
On January 24, 2002, the FBI, along with a small SWAT army of LAPD, LASD and Secret Service officers, descended on Austin’s home, with a bomb-squad truck parked nearby for good measure. For six hours the authorities asked questions, searched closets and carted off computers.
“I came home and saw all these people in their jackets on my lawn,” says Austin’s mother, Jennifer Martin Ruggiero, of the crowd of cops and G-men in windbreakers. “I thought maybe they were shooting a movie.”
Despite the January raid’s manpower, no arrests were made, and Ruggiero says that the raiders were quite civilized: “Everyone was very nice. We had all kinds of conversations about the weather, travel, careers — the kind of things normal people talk about.”
Sherman Austin describes himself as a nonviolent person who was only mildly politically aware in high school, a characterization his mother corroborates. “Sherman wanted to be the next Bill Gates,” Ruggiero says of her computer-savvy son. “He was Mr. Corporate.”
Then, during a 2001 May Day march in Long Beach, Austin got roughed up and jailed for a few days by the police. “After that I was more determined and more angry,” he says. “I began channeling my anger into organizing. I put on everything from political benefit shows, hip-hop shows and anti-police-brutality marches.”
A month after the January 2002 raid on his house, Austin was nabbed near New York’s Central Park during demonstrations against the World Economic Forum. He was held for about two weeks in a variety of federal lockups from Brooklyn to Oklahoma before being cut loose without charge. Six months later, the government informed him it would seek an indictment after all. Eventually he and his lawyer reached a plea agreement with a federal prosecutor that would send Austin to a month in prison followed by five months’ custody in a halfway house.
Or so the parties thought. Last September, however, federal District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson threw out the plea on the grounds that it was too light. Austin and his attorney consulted a federal probation officer and proposed a new sentence, this one involving four months in prison and four months in “community confinement,” followed by three years of supervised probation. Two weeks ago, they brought the revised deal to court.
For about an hour on June 30, Austin, his family and a few friends sat in Room 6 as the court heard a series of drug cases, the chamber’s somber calm occasionally lightened by the chinkle of chains and cuffs as defendants were led in from lockup. Judge Wilson, a Reagan appointee, is known for an evenhandedness that government and big business cannot always count on to work in their favor. Over the years he’s ruled against LAPD policies on body-cavity searches, found in favor of a fireman who read Playboy in his station, and blocked federal attempts to deport six Palestinians accused of terrorist affiliations; more recently he has sided with the online file-sharing sites Grokster and Morpheus against the recording industry.
Wilson ran a tight, fair court that Monday, allowing defense attorneys ample plea time while occasionally making an arid observation. Austin had dressed for the occasion in a gray suit and had neatly tied back his dreadlocks. But when Ron Kaye, Austin’s federal public defender, began making his appeal for the new plea agreement, Wilson’s stone-faced demeanor changed: He looked away or fiddled with his glasses whenever Kaye spoke. Before long, an agitated Wilson made it clear he thought even the latest arrangement was too lenient.
“I must tell you,” he interrupted Kaye,
“I see this case differently. I’m rather surprised the government hasn’t taken this case seriously.”
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