By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Eight Occupy Wall Street protesters went on trial on Monday on trespassing charges for scaling a fence in lower Manhattan to stake a new base of operations for the movement after being evicted from its main encampment late last year.
A retired Episcopalian bishop, George Packard, was among those on trial in Manhattan Criminal Court for breaking into fenced-in Duarte Square, a lot owned by historic Trinity Church, an active Episcopal parish founded in 1697.
They were part of a larger group of 65 protestors who were arrested on December 17, 2011, for pushing their way onto the church-owned land. It was an effort to secure a new base not far from Zuccotti Park, where the original Occupy encampment stood until police raided it in November 2011.
Through its protests, which spread across the country, Occupy Wall Street started a national conversation on economic inequality last fall. But the movement has struggled to maintain its viability after police cleared most of its encampments in various cities.
In his opening statement on Monday, Assistant District Attorney Lee Langston said the protesters made a "deliberate decision" to violate the church's property rights, despite a locked fence and signs warning against trespass.
"On December 17, the defendants decided to take the land over the church's objection," he said.
But Martin Stolar, a lawyer for the National Lawyers Guild who represents two of the defendants, said the church had leased the property to a cultural group, which posted other signs saying the square was "open to the public" despite the fence.
Amy Jedlicka, the church's real estate lawyer, testified on Monday that Duarte Square had been open for summer programs but was closed to the public by the fall.
Trespassing carries a sentence of up to 90 days in jail, defense lawyers said.
According to the district attorney's office, all but two of the defendants on trial had been offered either conditional dismissals or a violation, a lesser offense than a misdemeanor that typically results in no jail time. The two either have additional charges or other open cases.
Of the original 65 cases, nearly 50 have been resolved, most through conditional dismissals.
One of those on trial, Mark Adams, faces additional charges of attempted criminal mischief and attempted possession of burglar's tools for trying to use bolt-cutters to slice through the fence, prosecutors said.
Later this week, the first of approximately 10 consolidated trials for Occupy members arrested in October during a mass protest on the Brooklyn Bridge will begin. Many of the hundreds arrested that day have accepted conditional dismissals, but nearly 100 have refused and will be tried in groups of five to 10 at a time.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Dan Grebler)