Wednesday, January 11, 2006 Print This | Email This     

Activists: We were framed by Democrat operatives in tire-slashing case

By Chris O'Connell, Court TV

MILWAUKEE (Cour t TV) — Five Democratic activists accused of slashing the tires of vans rented by Republicans on Election Day 2004 are now alleging that the Democratic Party set them up to take the fall.

Defense lawyers told jurors Tuesday that the five campaign workers were innocent and that their party's "professional political operatives" actually damaged the tires and then pointed police in the direction of the defendants.

"Like troop movements in a war, these people came to Wisconsin as it became apparent that Wisconsin was in play," attorney Robin Shellow said. "These are people who stepped over the line and now, because of what they do for a living, they blame our clients."

Shellow, who is representing accused tire-slasher Sowande Omokunde, son of Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), said the operatives' loathing of Republicans and President George W. Bush motivated the slashings.

Omokunde, Michael Pratt, the son of former Milwaukee acting mayor Marvin Pratt, Justin Howell, Lewis Caldwell and Lavelle Mohammad are all charged with criminal damage to property — a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 3 1/2 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The GOP rented more than 100 vehicles for a get-out-the-vote campaign on Nov. 2, 2004. The vehicles were parked in a lot adjacent to a Bush campaign office, and party workers planned to drive poll watchers to polling places by 7 a.m. and deliver any voters who didn't have a ride.

The defendants, all of whom were paid workers for Sen. John Kerry's campaign, are accused of flattening the tires at about 3:30 a.m. the morning of the election.

But the defendants' lawyers said in opening statements Tuesday that a core group of Democratic operatives led by Oppel Simmons were the true culprits.

Simmons, Levar Stoney and Leshaunda "Joy" Williams are all key state witnesses who are expected to testify that the five defendants came back to the Democratic headquarters excited about something just about right after the tires were found slashed by a security guard at the Republican party office.

Rodney Cubbie, the lawyer for Pratt, said the security guard took down the license plate of a van rented by Simmons, and that the guard — the only witness at the crime scene — could not positively identify any of the defendants.

These facts, Cubbie said, could lead to only one conclusion: The out-of-town party officials framed the "locals," as they derisively called the five campaign workers.

"The evidence in this case will be much stronger against the defendant's accusers than against the defendants themselves," Cubbie said.

Milwaukee County assistant district attorney David Feiss told jurors in his opening statement that Simmons and other political operatives have implicated the defendants in vandalism that left 40 tires on 25 rental vans slashed and deflated.

"[The defendants] almost got away with it," Feiss said.

He said cellphone records and the defendants' suspicious behavior the night of the election indicated their guilt.

Feiss told jurors that the defendants allegedly returned to Democratic headquarters dressed in "Mission Impossible"-style clothing and bragged about what they had done.

When Simmons, a Virginia resident, asked the defendants what was going on, one of them allegedly said, "Don't ask. You don't want to know," Feiss said.

Among the 70-plus people on the witness list are AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), who was in Milwaukee on Election Day.

After hinting that the Republican Party itself may have slashed the van tires as a stunt to blame Democrats, Shellow claimed that Sweeney used his political clout in a "coordinated" effort to use violence as an intimidation tactic across the country.

The trial, which is expected to last about two weeks, is being shown live on Court TV Extra.

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