By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Nearly 200 Occupy Wall Street protesters flooded Manhattan criminal court on Wednesday, summonses in hand, several months after they were arrested during a march across the Brooklyn Bridge to demonstrate against economic inequality.
A jury room was converted to a courtroom to specifically handle the deluge, and one by one the protesters were called up before Criminal Court Justice Neil Ross.
Trials are rare occurrences for summons court, where routine offenses are normally processed immediately through a fine or a dismissal.
The protesters had a choice -- plead not guilty and go to trial, plead guilty, or agree to the district attorney's offer of a dismissal of the charge with the arrest sealed after six months if the defendant was not arrested again.
Martin Stolar, a National Lawyers Guild attorney who had volunteered to help represent the protesters, estimated about 60 percent of protesters accepted the offer to dismiss the charges, and the rest opted to plead not guilty.
The protesters appearing on Wednesday were among 700 arrested during the Brooklyn Bridge march on October 1 after they strayed off the walkway and on to the road. They were given a summons, a violation handed out for offenses such as carrying an open container of alcohol or using a city park after hours.
Hundreds more protesters are expected to appear in court over the next week, presenting a logistical challenge.
The Manhattan district attorney's office, which normally does not appear in court in summons cases, assigned prosecutors to ensure all Occupy-related cases, including other arrests that are being prosecuted by the district attorney, are handled "consistently and fairly," a spokeswoman for the office said.
MORE TO PROCESS
On top of the 700 arrests from the Brooklyn Bridge march, the district attorney's office is also processing more than 1,000 other arrests of protesters made since the three-month-old movement set up camp in a New York City park.
Occupy Wall Street hit the headlines when protesters took over New York's Zuccotti Park on September 17, sparking demonstrations across the United States and elsewhere in the world and, in some cases, violent clashes with police.
Protesters say they are upset that billions of dollars in bailouts were given to banks amid the recession while average Americans, whom they refer to as the "99 percent." still suffer financially. They accuse politicians of being swayed by large campaign donations from big business.
The protesters in New York and many other U.S. cities have since been evicted from the public spaces they occupied.
Quinton Mudd, 28, who works in commercial real estate, agreed on Wednesday for his charge to be dismissed because he said he had no further plans to protest and risk arrest unless something truly inspired him to do so.
Instead, he said, the movement had entered a new phase.
"I feel like the marches helped give that movement its power," he said. "I don't feel like marching now will accomplish the goals we need to accomplish."
Other protesters -- like Jennifer Wittlin, a 41-year-old social worker -- chose to plead not guilty and go to trial either because they could not guarantee they would not be re-arrested or they felt their first arrest was unjustified.
"I think it's just a matter of principle for me, feeling like I didn't have the right to exercise my free speech," Wittlin said.
Shortly after declaring she would plead not guilty, Wittlin learned her case was dismissed -- one of just a few whose summonses were never processed, either because police failed to enter them into the system or because a clerk found a problem.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Michelle Nichols and Jerry Norton)