Jay Nixon's War on Terror
By Jack Cashill
August 9, 2007
Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon is running for governor of Missouri and expects to win. Most local pundits expect the same.
On Nixon’s official campaign web site, the popular four-term AG reminds us that he has been “a national and state leader in fighting crime, protecting consumers, and safeguarding the taxpayers' money.”
But Jay Nixon tells us not a word about his once upon a time role as national and state leader in the war on terror. Yes, the war on terror. As The Kansas City Star reported a decade back, when it came to terror groups, Nixon was keen on "taking the hardest line of any attorney general in the nation."
As will soon become clear, this is something that Nixon would rather forget. But for Heather Johnson* and fourteen other Missouri citizens, there is no forgetting and no forgiving. Allow me to explain.
On March 30, 1996, the 22 year-old Heather happily shucked her apron at the suburban Kansas City McDonald's where she worked and headed out with her fiancé to a potluck dinner at a Knights of Columbus Hall in mid-Missouri.
Heather may have been sick of Big Macs when she left that night, but Lord knows, she'd be fantasizing about them soon enough.
The potluck was organized by a group of folks who take the state and federal constitution as seriously as fundamentalist do the Bible. That evening they were holding what they called a "common law grand jury" to assess the constitutionality of certain police actions in the area. They were one short of the necessary twenty-four and cajoled the apolitical babysitter into sitting in.
One fellow appeared before the jury to protest a judge's treatment of his 17-year-old daughter after a traffic stop. The grand jury had also invited the judge to come explain his action.
Not surprisingly, the judge blew the constitutionalists off, and the grand jury decided in the plaintiff's favor. They told the plaintiff that under Missouri law he had a right to file a lien against the judge's property. The plaintiff promptly did just that.
Bad move. The ambitious Nixon, eying Kit Bond’s Senate seat, was looking for an opportunity to strut his anti-terror stuff, a then fashionable strut among the party faithful.
Some months passed before Heather learned of Nixon’s ambitions, and she learned the hard way. The state police came to her home late one night, handcuffed her, and hustled her off to jail. The desperate and tearful burger-flipper had no idea what she was being arrested for.
Heather would soon learn that she had "tampered with a judicial officer by engaging in conduct reasonably calculated to harass [the judge], namely, filing a lien with the Lincoln County Recorder of Deeds on the property of [the judge.]"
The fact that the lien had been immediately expunged did not deter Nixon. Nor did the fact that Heather had not signed the lien or filed it. She and her co-defendants had apparently "tampered" and "harassed" by recommending its filing, and that was enough.
At the time of the incident, in fact, Heather did not know what a lien was. She would tell me later, in a St. Joseph prison, "The word had yet to come into my vocabulary."
This was a real prison, by the way, a Show-Me Guantanamo with coiled razor wire on the tops of the walls and big fat mommas in orange jump suits wandering the halls. Heather had already served one year of a two-year sentence when I interviewed her for KSHB-TV. (I still have the tapes).
She had been tried as a group with fourteen others in Lincoln County, the site of the lien. Curiously, the two men who actually filed the lien were not charged. Another curiosity was that the lien was technically legal at the time it was filed—the legislature would not ban common law liens until August of that year.
Given the thinness of the charges, Heather and the fourteen others fully expected to be exonerated. They chose to defend themselves.
"We range from ages 23 to 78," defendant and Vietnam vet James Ransdell told the jury in his opening statement. "We are farmers, mechanics, carpenters, truck drivers, equipment operators, a cross section of America. Until this came up none of us had ever been arrested for anything but maybe some speeding tickets."
Nixon, however, had no pity on these “paper terrorists,” the preferred media term of the day. Sensing a political opportunity, especially given the favorable media climate in Missouri for ambitious Democrats, he led the charge himself.
Before a jury pulled from a well poisoned pool, Nixon and his crack team of Assistant AGs hammered the fifteen. All of them were convicted. Thirteen received two-year sentences. The two presumed ringleaders were given seven years each and denied bail, all for inconveniencing a judge.
When Heather told me the facts of the case—it had scarcely been reported in Kansas City--I had a hard time believing them. I insisted on reading the trial transcript and all the reporting around the trial until I was satisfied that I had gleaned the true story.
Wanting to find out more, I called the state Attorney General's office and got Nixon to appear on a daily talk radio show I was then hosting. Did I mention that he was running for U.S. Senate at the time?
Nixon spoke of a "growing movement" and "an accelerating problem." He said he had tried a reasoned approach "with these people,” but when the problem persisted, the hammer came down.
The Missouri 15, however, claimed that they never talked to Nixon, nor heard from the state until arrested. The divergence in story lines may very well have been one of semantics. Nixon's "these people" did not quite line up with these particular people.
The evidence that any threats of violence came from the defendants was non-existent. If threats were made, surely that evidence would have been entered into the trial record. But it wasn't.
Another prickly issue was why Nixon selected just fifteen of the 24-man jury for prosecution. He told me that the state cracked down only on the activists, but that hardly explains the imprisonment of a clueless baby-sitter.
Happily for Nixon, the media, local and national, turned a blind eye to this story and still do. Curiously, they selected not him but fellow Missourian, John Ashcroft, as the poster child for anti-terrorist oppression, "the Torquemada of American law," according to one Walter Cronkite.
Now if only Osama Bin Laden had filed a lien against the World Trade Center, maybe folks like Nixon and Cronkite would have signed on to fight our current war on terror.
(* I have changed Heather’s name to protect her but no other detail.)
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