The trial of the Camden 28 lasted 105 days, from February 5 to May 20, 1973. During the more than two months the defense took to present its case, each of the defendants spoke at length, often with moving eloquence. In an unusual arrangement, three young lawyers aided the activists, who chose either to act as their own lawyers or to have “co-counsel,” in which defendants could both speak for themselves and have an attorney speak for them. Far from pleading innocent to the charges, they proudly proclaimed their guilt. “I ripped up those files with my hands,” declared the Rev. Peter D. Fordi, adding, “They were the instruments of destruction.”
The Camden activists asked the jury to “nullify the laws” against breaking and entering and to acquit them as a means of saying that the country had had enough of the “illegal and immoral” war in Vietnam. They also asked the jury to acquit on the grounds that the raid would not have taken place without the help of a self-admitted FBI informer and provocateur. The defendants emphasized that they had given up their plan, for lack of a practical means, until the informer-provocateur had resurrected it and provided them with the encouragement and tools to carry it out.
After three and a half months, the case went to the jury. Judge Clarkson Fisher’s charge broke new legal ground. Despite the fact that the defendants admitted plotting the action before the informer appeared, Judge Fisher informed the jury they could acquit if they felt government participation in setting up the crime had gone to “intolerable” lengths that were “offensive to the basic standards of decency and shocking to the universal sense of justice.” He did add, however, that although it was in their power, it would not be proper for the jury to reach their verdict based on the issue of the war, (that is, nullify the laws that were broken) and that “protest is not an acceptable legal defense, as sincerely motivated as I think they were.”
“The spirit and the words of [the Declaration of Independence] are that when governments become too oppressive, when governments take away our lives or our liberties, our right to pursue happiness, then the regular rules may have to be broken.”
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“So as time went on I began to see … [that] if we middle-class Americans would just stop looking at you young people and the way you look, and would see you and hear you and what you had to say, that you really were a group of beautiful people that had your right to your own conscience.”
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