Tripped by the evidence in Commonwealth vs. Cirignano

Sometimes the good guy wins. On Oct. 22, a Worcester jury acquitted Larry Cirignano of criminal charges stemming from much disputed events at a marriage rally held in front of the Worcester city hall last year.

At the time the criminal complaint was filed, Larry was the executive director of the Boston-based lay group Catholic Citizenship, an ally on public policy issues for the state’s Catholic bishops. Larry was accused, wrongly, of pushing a counter-demonstrator to the ground, and causing her to bang her head on the sidewalk.

For those who dare to defend traditional marriage and other politically incorrect values in Massachusetts, the case of Commonwealth v. Cirignano serves as both warning and encouragement.

What are the undisputed facts? At the December 2006 rally, granted a permit by the city, Sarah Loy, a member of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and gay marriage supporter, emerged from the crowd and stood with a protest sign in front of the ground level podium, thus interfering with the speakers.

Larry, trained in crowd control, and aware that other traditional marriage rallies had been similarly disrupted, moved to Loy’s side and asked her to leave. Police monitoring the rally were standing at the back of the crowd, showing no indication of interceding.

What happened next became the source of great contention. A reporter for the Worcester Telegram covering the rally, Richard Nangle, wrote in an article the next day that Larry “ran into the crowd, grabbed [Loy] by both shoulders” and “then pushed her to the ground, her head slamming against the concrete sidewalk.”

Loy curled into the fetal position, then got up and began crying “That’s what hate does, that’s what hate does.” Larry admitted that he used one arm to lightly direct Loy away from the podium, but denied that he pushed her or otherwise caused her to fall.

Nangle later told, a group supporting gay marriage, that he purposely abandoned the journalistic rule of referring to the reported incident as “alleged” since he was, in the words of Know-Thy-Neighbor, a direct witness and “first responder.” Nangle further claimed that “I have never seen anything so disgusting.”

Loy filed criminal charges for assault and battery and later added a civil rights complaint, arguing that Larry denied her constitutional right of free speech.

Then the indignant drum began to beat as the Internet and presses hummed with condemnation. One e-headline screamed “Catholics Don’t Care Who They Bash on This Issue!” Another blogger argued that the upcoming trial would present “one of the many opportunities to inform the extreme right wing sorts that they can’t count on getting away with stifling others, much less physically attacking them.” Even Boston commentator John Keller took up knife and fork, roasting Larry in a chapter entitled “What Hate Does” in his new book “The Bluest State.”

Larry resigned from Catholic Citizenship. The Worcester district attorney decided to prosecute and docketed the case with the title of Commonwealth v. Cirignano. Larry gratefully accepted the offer of Boston attorney Mike Gilleran to defend him without fee. They lost a preliminary round when a judge approved Loy’s civil rights complaint and the negative commentary increased.

At the October trial before a different judge, Gilleran was able to get the civil rights complaint thrown out. He convinced the trial judge that an earlier free speech decision of the U.S. Supreme Court applied. The ruling recognized that the organizers of South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, by virtue of getting a permit, had their own free speech rights and thus could prevent activists from crashing the parade to express their support for gay causes.

Thus Loy did not have a civil right to crash the marriage rally, and over the objections of the district attorney, the Worcester judge ruled in Larry’s favor. This was a huge victory but it was not the last.

After a jury was selected, the district attorney called several witnesses to the stand. All testified that they saw Loy pushed to the ground by Larry. Except for Nangle, the witnesses admitted that they were part of the counter-demonstration. On cross-examination, Gilleran showed photographs and video of the crowd, and asked why the witnesses, including Nangle, could not be seen near the spot where Loy landed. The witnesses began to hedge, claiming that they were hidden behind signs. One witness contended that his elbow could be seen nearby.

Then Gilleran summoned his own witnesses. Many of them were participants in the rally and supporters of traditional marriage, but not all. Larry testified that he used a method to move Loy that did not involve the use of his hands, but only the use of his forearm placed lightly at her back to guide her away. Other witnesses disputed that he grabbed Loy and pushed her.

Gilleran then brought to the stand a mother and teen-aged daughter who had come to city hall that day for other reasons, and were not involved with either side in the same-sex marriage debate.

The mother and daughter testified that Loy had attempted to move by them, and tripped over the daughter’s foot as a result. It was only when nearby allies told Loy not to get up that she curled up and began crying out. The two witnesses said that Larry was not any where around when this happened. The photos and videos verified the location of these witnesses.

At closing arguments, the district attorney abandoned any reference to Loy’s fall and asked the jury to find that Larry committed a crime simply by moving Loy away from the podium. Gilleran responded that any touching involved in guiding Loy back to the crowd was reasonable under the circumstances since the organizers of the rally had a permit to assemble and Loy had no right to interfere. To the shock of all those who had Larry convicted before proven guilty, the jury decided in Larry’s favor.

The worrisome part of this story is the degree to which supporters of same-sex marriage appeared willing to tar and feather an opponent of their view, regardless of the evidence. The encouraging part is that the system of justice, consistent with its promise, did actually prevail in this case. Thank God the attacks on Larry were tripped by the evidence.

There are people who are trying to paint supporters of traditional marriage as haters, and we will need the system to work to preserve what little opportunity we have remaining to influence public policy, now that same-sex marriage is in force in Massachusetts. To that end, Larry Cirignano, with the assistance of Mike Gilleran, deserve our congratulations for not giving in.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy & Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.