ORLANDO – When the chief judge of the Orange County Courthouse issued an administrative order banning people from distributing flyers to prospective jurors, Mark Schmidter responded, and stopped doing it.
“I didn’t want to get arrested,” he said, then added, “like I did now.”
Wearing a dark blue jail jumpsuit, and with an inmate identification badge clipped to his shirt, Schmidter has spent four days in the place he never quite expected to end up – the Orange County jail. Even so, he still believes – passionately – in the cause he’s been promoting, perhaps even more so now.
“To me, this is a real big First Amendment issue,” he said. “Forget about me, I’m just a vehicle. This is very big.”
He got released around 9:30 p.m. Friday.
Schmidter, 64, is an Orlando roofing contractor who got involved in libertarian political causes last year, and developed an interest in jury nullification. As a firm believer that the United States has far too many victimless laws, he began distributing flyers to prospective jurors in front of the Orange County Courthouse, urging them to consider voting to acquit a defendant if they disagreed with the law that person was being charged with.
Then on June 29, he got arrested for doing it – right at the height of the media frenzy over the high profile Casey Anthony trial. The previous January, the chief judge of the courthouse, Belvin Perry – who was also the presiding judge in the Anthony trial – issued an administrative order banning anyone from giving information to jurors, which the judge called a form of jury tampering. Schmidter got arrested on June 29 for violating the judge’s order, and also for distributing the flyers outside of a “free speech zone” the judge had set up in front of the courthouse for protestors during the Anthony trial.
On Tuesday, Schmidter had his trial before the judge, and was convicted of contempt of court – a third degree felony. He was sentenced to five months in jail.
Schmidter said he had gone to court on Tuesday expecting the judge to find him guilty, but not to get jail time.
“I was stunned,” he said. “I was ready to fall over. I had no idea it was criminal or that it would be that length of time. I was wondering if the judge would give me some time to get my affairs in order, but nope, they handcuffed me right there and brought me down here.”
He was placed in protective custody.
When Schmidter agreed to an interview with Freeline Media on Friday afternoon, he was hours away from being released. On Friday morning, Schmidter and his attorney, Adam Sudbury, went back in front of Judge Perry to ask for bail pending an appeal of his conviction. Perry granted him $500 on each count, or $1,000 bail. Schmidter said he expected to post the $100 bond and get released later in the day.
But he still remains surprised at how stiff his sentence was for handing out political flyers to people walking into the courthouse.
“We went to court knowing that the judge was going to find me guilty, but he almost has to,” Schmidter said, since Perry had issued the administrative order to begin with.
“But we thought he could find me guilty of a misdemeanor,” he said. “On the face of this, everybody is saying this doesn’t make any sense.”
Schmidter noted that when the judge issued his administrative order on Jan. 31, he stopped handing out the flyers in Orange County, and went to Seminole County Court in Sanford instead. But gradually he came back to Orange County, started handing out flyers on the street near the courthouse, and then in the walkway leading to the courthouse steps that jurors typically use when they get called for duty. Although he was given copies of the administrative order several times by sheriff’s deputies, he never got arrested – until June 29.
Schmidter says he thinks his arrest had something to do with the Casey Anthony trial – since the judge was presiding over that case and under the public microscope, that may have convinced Perry to finally enforce his administrative order, Schmidter said.
And he never thought he would be restricted to the free speech zone.
“I thought that was for the Casey Anthony folks,” he said.
At a hearing a few weeks before his trial, Schmidter said he asked the judge to recuse himself, and the judge refused.
“Then I said I wanted a trial by jury,” Schmidter said. “He said ‘Denied.’ I was stunned by that. “
At his trial on Tuesday, Schmidter said he had planned to argue that his free speech rights had been violated, that the administrative order violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because the jury nullification flyers did not discuss any specific cases the jurors might hear. He quickly learned otherwise.
“We couldn’t argue First Amendment rights much,” Schmidter said. “You could only argue whether the indirect civil contempt charge applied to you.”
Schmidter plans to appeal his conviction, even though if he loses, he’s back in jail to serve out the remainder of his five month sentence. Schmidter said he briefly thought about serving the sentence and getting it over with, then decided there were important issues he wanted to raise on appeal.
“When it comes to free speech, there are so many questions that arise from this,” he said. “If I lose these appeals — and they could take a while – I had to swear I would come back and do the time. I thought about doing it now, but then I said nope. I want this to stay in the news.”
After his bond was posted and Schmidter got released from the jail, he sent out an email to friends and supporters that said “Thanks, everyone for your support! We must appeal. The appeal will cost $5,000. If I – we — lose, 150 days in jail days for me! But more important than I, we all lose our First Amendment rights. I am just the vehicle to freedom. You are the fuel.”
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