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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Occupy Our Homes Atlanta activists walk free - for now - after mistrial

Mark Harris has fought for more than a year against Fannie Mae.
Four Occupy Our Homes Atlanta members arrested for civil disobedience - and who each faced at least one year in prison - walked free last week after a DeKalb County jury could not reach a verdict.

The surprise announcement came after two days of testimony in the trial revolved around Mark Harris, a Gulf War veteran who's spent the last year battling Fannie Mae over the foreclosure on his Avondale Estates home.

Harris, Mariam Asad, Daniel Hanley, and Tim Franzen were arrested and charged with criminal trespass last August after they refused to leave Harris' home. The group was protesting what Harris and supporters considered an unfair eviction and foreclosure by Fannie Mae.

In 2012 Fannie Mae initiated foreclosure proceedings against Harris, putting him on the street. For more than a year, Harris and OOHA tried to prod the lender to negotiate. Thus began a protest campaign outside Fannie Mae's regional offices and Washington, D.C. headquarters. Then came the August arrests (Fannie Mae was not immediately available for comment).

The defendants each faced up to one year in prison for each trespassing charge. Asad, a Georgia Tech Ph.D. student studying how grassroots activists use technology, returned to Georgia from San Francisco, where she's interning over the summer at a tech company, to stand trial.

The defendants rejected a plea deal that would have required them to serve 12 months of probation and work 40 hours of community service.

"I didn't stand in the yard that day to plead guilty," says Franzen, who also helped organize Georgia's Moral Monday protests. "I believe in my innocence and all of our innocence. I believe the guilty party is Fannie Mae."

The defendants' pro bono legal team had hoped to detail the events leading up to the signing of Harris' mortgage to help the jury understand his and protesters' motivations. But Mawuli "Mel" Davis, one of the defendants' attorneys, said DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Dax Lopez denied the request. The judge also denied testimony of Lynn Szymoniak, a Florida attorney who helped blow the whistle on some lenders' practice of falsely signing mortgage documents.

After an hour and a half of deliberations on Aug. 7, the jury told Lopez that they needed more time and were debating whether they were deadlocked. The judge told them to return the next morning. After additional discussions, the jury could not budge. Lopez declared a mistrial.

"I'm definitely relieved we're able to walk free today," Asad says, adding that she hopes the group's ordeal encourages others to "come together and resist injustices." And Franzen considers the hung jury a "victory."

But a mistrial isn't the same as a not-guilty verdict. A spokeswoman for DeKalb County Solicitor General Sherry Boston said the office has not decided whether it will seek another trial.

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