By Rosemary K. Otzman
Independent Court Reporter
After an eight-hour court session on Friday at 34th District Court in Romulus a jury of five men and two women unanimously found John Delaney guilty of disturbing a Van Buren Township board meeting on Sept. 18.
Judge Brian Oakley sentenced him to pay $1,000, in fines and court costs, which was due to the court by 3 p.m. May 30.
The original citation Delaney received for the disturbance would have cost $500 and/or 90 days, but he pled not guilty, hired an attorney, and demanded a jury trial.
Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Ryan Lukiewski told the jury, “This is not the crime of the century. It’s disturbing the peace.”
After jury selection, Prosecutor Lukiewski began his opening remarks at about 10:45 a.m. by acting out what Delaney said when he had a confrontation with VBT Supervisor Paul White at the Sept. 18 meeting.
Delaney reportedly taunted White to warn him three times, as was White’s procedure, and then dared White to have him arrested because he only spent three minutes in custody last time he was arrested. “Do it. I dare you,” Lukiewski said, quoting Delaney to the jury.
“This isn’t 1967 Selma, Alabama or a sit in,” Lukiewski said, explaining it was a person in a public meeting calling someone an offensive name. He said this isn’t the way people run public meetings, with “an explosion,” referring to Delaney’s voice that got louder and taunting and calling White an idiot.
He said Delaney was way off the mike at the beginning of the incident so his voice on the video recording of the meeting sounds muffled like the cartoon character Charlie Brown’s adults talking. But then it becomes crystal clear, he said, because, “He’s yelling.”
“There are limits to free speech,” Lukiewski said, with a reference to calling out fire in a crowded theater. He said reasonable restrictions can be put in place that actually enhance free speech, when everyone takes turns, rather than talking over each other.
He said when people from the peanut gallery explode and call names, it interferes with free speech.
“I think Mr. Delaney is very sincere in his beliefs, but, “It doesn’t give you license to do whatever you want in a meeting … I think beyond a reasonable doubt, he did disturb a meeting.”
Delaney’s attorney James Fifelski disagreed on who actually incited the disturbance, concluding it was Supervisor White, not his client. He said the muffled sound in the back of the room did not disturb the meeting until White confronted Delaney.
Fifelski said Delaney supported Supervisor White to get his position, but then questioned White’s decision-making.
He said Delaney had been arrested at two previous meetings and never resisted arrest. Fifelski argued that there has been a pattern between Paul White and Delaney and White used his authority to suppress Delaney.
Fifelski said Delaney is the only person arrested by White and Delaney was never convicted “of any of them.”
Further testimony showed there was just one previous arrest of Delaney for disturbing a meeting and White later said he had dropped that charge.
Fifelski said White caused the Sept. 18 disturbance because he interrupted the privacy of Delaney’s conversation, with the attorney conceding Delaney “may have spoken too loudly.”
He said when White called Delaney out of order the whole incident took only 20 to 24 sends before Delaney was arrested.
“Supervisor White was disturbed, not the meeting,” Fifelski argued. “Paul White pushed down Mr. Delaney and removed him from the meeting… It was not Mr. Delaney that caused the disturbance.
“This is about freedom of speech,” Fifelski asserted.
The jury was sent out while it was decided how to show the recording of portions of the Sept. 18 board meeting on the large screen in the courtroom. Delaney got up and tried to join in the procedure and Judge Oakley reprimanded Delaney, telling him to sit down and let his attorney take care of it.
“It’s my life,” Delaney protested.
“It’s not your life,” Judge Oakley replied.
While Fifelski had planned to run the equipment to show the parts of the meeting the attorneys had agreed upon, Prosecutor Lukiewski objected, saying he wanted someone independent of the trial to do that. It was decided Court Administrator Al Hindman would run the equipment.
Fifelski also had asked to enter as evidence a 2009 “Voice” newspaper report that said White had taken the free papers away from a bank to keep people from hearing about a special meeting. “This showed a pattern of First Amendment repression,” Fifelski said.
Lukiewski said he believes the incident was at a gas station and it predates the meeting in question. “I think it’s not relevant,” he said, adding that the paper accused White of “suppressing free speech, which is more prejudicial than probative.”
Judge Oakley did not allow the paper as evidence, referring to it as “pure hearsay.”
(The Voice was the publication circulated during the attempt to recall White and other officials. After that recall attempt failed, the Voice ceased publication and was reincarnated by the people pushing the recall as the Belleville Lake Current, which continues to publish.)
The jury returned to the courtroom and the trial continued, with a large portion of the Sept. 18 township board meeting shown as evidence. Three of the jurors nodded off.
The meeting video showed Delaney getting up to speak four times without a problem.
In the video, a long line of people spoke without a problem, criticizing White and members of the township board. CeJay Marshall spoke heatedly on an issue, but this was after the meeting was recessed for 10 minutes while Delaney was ejected and arrested. Marshall left the meeting and went home after three warnings from White for also disturbing the meeting.
Delaney’s supporters in the courtroom and Delaney’s attorney claimed Marshall came back to that meeting, but Marshall said White was correct in saying he left the meeting and didn’t come back.
Judge Oakley had told the jury, at the beginning of the trial, that jurors were in charge of the schedule and when they wanted to break for lunch or anything else, just to let him know. The jury chose to go all day without lunch or breaks, in addition to the breaks they got from time to time when the judge needed them to be out of the courtroom.
It was at 12:57 p.m. when Supervisor Paul White was called to testify and he was on the stand until 2:02 p.m. answering questions from the prosecutor and the defense attorney.
Prosecutor Lukiewski then told the judge he had two more witnesses, but in order to save time in the long trial, he would not call them now and would rest his prosecution. Judge Oakley had ruled that the trial would be no longer than one day. If one of his witnesses was needed for a rebuttal, Lukiewski said he would ask to call that witness later.
Lukiewski referred to VBT Clerk Leon Wright and former VBT Public Safety Director Carl McClanahan. The two men, in addition to White, were sequestered all day waiting to be called as witnesses.
Witnesses for the defense were listed as Delaney, Larry Fix, Ed Hage, Jane Kovach, and Ken Brooks, with Brooks listed as “potential.” Brooks, who was a VBT police captain before retirement, now works at the 34th District Court.
By the end of the day, all the witnesses listed were called except for McClanahan and Brooks.
After Lukiewski rested his prosecution, Fifelski made a motion asking Judge Oakley for a directed verdict, to dismiss the charge against his client because the disturbance was created by White.
Judge Oakley refused to take the case away from the jury, saying it is not unreasonable to think the jury would see White was distracted from the meeting by Delaney.
The first defense witness called was Delaney, who described himself as an advocate for other residents, who come to his home and ask him, “Are you the guy I see on TV speaking out for people?”
In his hour on the stand, Delaney described himself as an electrical contractor and said he talks too loudly because, “I can’t hear because of construction.”
He said he used to support White, but after he helped White survive the Feb. 23, 2010 recall election he issued a statement that he no longer supported White because of various issues. He testified he was arrested for disturbing a meeting June 6, 2011.
Fifelski asked Delaney about White calling him a “lying mother f—–“ and Delaney said in February or March of 2012, White came to him after a meeting, “stuck his finger in my face” and called him that. He said it had to do with pizzas in the recall two years before.
White had admitted the confrontation during his testimony.
While Delaney was testifying, Judge Oakley directed Delaney not to talk around the answers, but just say what is germane.
“It is germane,” Delaney argued.
“I decide what’s germane,” Judge Oakley stated.
Again, while answering questions, Delaney started talking about another day and Judge Oakley declared a break in the proceedings. He asked Fifelski to speak to his client and tell him how to answer a direct question.
During the break, CeJay Marshall, who was in the audience at the trial, approached the bailiff to say that one of Delaney’s statements during sworn testimony was a lie. Delaney said he was in a conversation with Marshall at the time of the incident and Marshall said that wasn’t true. He objected to Delaney using his name when there was no conversation.
“He was making snide comments about Terry Carroll,” Marshall said, adding as to the supposed conversation, “It’s a lie.”
Delaney, who was in the courtroom, while official proceedings were in recess, heard Marshall’s complaint and responded, “Sue me.”
Later, Marshall said his complaint about the testimony was passed around to court officials, but he was told there was nothing that could be done since he wasn’t a witness.
After court reconvened, Prosecutor Lukiewski continued his questioning of Delaney, and Delaney said he felt threatened by White when White told him to be quiet.
“That’s why you stepped forward?” Lukiewski asked.
Delaney said he took two steps toward White, but the only other way for him to move was to the wall, which he was leaning against.
When Lukiewski asked him another question, Delaney replied: “I didn’t sleep overnight and forget everything in four years.”
At this point, Jane Kovach, who had been sitting out in the hall for six hours waiting to testify in Delaney’s defense, stuck her head in the doorway and asked when she was going to be called.
Delaney stepped down and Kovach was called to the stand for a brief time. She reminded everyone she was going to be 100 years old in 10 years and she loved her feral cats. She criticized White but said she couldn’t remember Delaney being arrested.
Witness Edward Arnold Hage, whose girlfriend has property in VBT, said Delaney helped his girlfriend when she was having trouble getting her water turned on in her new residence. He said White seemed to be nice, but he couldn’t get anything done at a board meeting if you weren’t in the clique.
Prosecutor Lukiewski asked Hage if he attended the Sept. 18 meeting and Hage replied, “I saw it on TV.”
“So did we,” Lukiewski said, and Hage was excused from the stand.
Witness Larry Fix said he scolded White many times on lack of management skills and called him out when he saw White whispering to the clerk during a public meeting. He criticized White at length and then answered Lukiewski’s question about if he was ever turned away from the podium. Fix said he was never turned away from giving his opinion, but sometimes was interrupted. He said White sometimes would make comments as speakers returned to their seats.
The defense rested at 3:50 p.m.
Clerk Leon Wright was called as a rebuttal prosecution witness just before 4 p.m. He testified that White issued warnings for disrupting a meeting to different people, not just Delaney, and the warnings were evenly applied.
Wright said at the Sept. 18 meeting, Alan Babosh was at the podium speaking and that’s when Delaney started saying something while waiting in the line of people waiting to speak behind Babosh. Wright said it distracted his attention from Babosh’s words and the meeting. White had already testified Delaney’s comments distracted him from the meeting and from Babosh’s comments.
Wright said it was White’s job to run the meeting and White asked Delaney to stop, asked him to be quiet, but he wasn’t quiet.
“He continued saying things out loud,” Wright testified, saying White warned Delaney more than once and he never became quiet.
“In my opinion … he disturbed the township meeting,” Wright said.
During Fifelski’s cross examination of Wright, it was brought out that the clock used to time speakers and keep them to the three-minute maximum comment time was ordered by Delaney for the township’s use.
Fifelski said that Wright was sergeant at arms and Wright said he wasn’t and had no intent to be. Wright said Public Safety Director McClanahan, a certified police officer, sat at the board table and took care of any such issues.
In the closing argument, Prosecutor Lukiewski said, “I don’t think Mr. Delaney is a bad guy, but he violated the law. Don’t make a disturbance in a meeting open to the public… Did Mr. Delaney make a disturbance? You hear muffled talk… Supervisor White reacts because it distracts him … Any law-abiding person would just stop talking.”
He said, instead, Delaney taunted White.
“You can’t have people talking over each other … People get PO’d because they don’t get to talk again,” he continued, saying on the video they saw people were saying the supervisor is awful, but they were allowed to continue speaking.
“Beyond a reasonable doubt, he disturbed this meeting,” Lukiewski concluded, referring to Delaney.
Fifelski said the prosecutor had said this is not the biggest charge in the world, but “This is a very important charge, a criminal charge.”
Fifelski said he called witnesses to present the bigger picture and that he thought it was White who disturbed the meeting.
“How could he disturb the meeting when they couldn’t understand what he was saying?” Fifelski said of Delaney. “He became exacerbated, surprised,” he said of Delaney. “He doesn’t know he’s being addressed.”
He told the jury they could watch the meeting video again, if they wanted, and they could see it was just 24 seconds between the beginning of the exchange and the time Delaney walked out of the meeting.
Fifelski compared the 2 minutes and 36 seconds of the Marshall exchange to the shorter Delaney exchange and, “Somebody’s being singled out. Mr. Delaney is the only one getting arrested.”
He said White said he had no problem with John Delaney, yet he called him a “f—— liar.”
Fifelski said the situation was blown way out of proportion when Delaney tried to explain himself.
Lukiewski argued that Delaney was not explaining himself, but taunted White, saying he would only do three minutes in jail. He said there is a dispute over who made the disturbance, but Clerk Wright and Paul White said they were disturbed. He said Mrs. Kovach exceeded her time by one minute and White allowed her to continue talking. He said White stated he likes to let people finish their thought before telling them their time is up.
Lukiewski said Delaney wasn’t at the podium and wasn’t recognized by the chair when he started talking over Babosh. He stated taking turns is a legitimate way to run a meeting and, “You don’t get a pass for being a good guy.”
Judge Oakley announced all seven jurors would vote for the verdict instead of eliminating one to make it a jury of six after everyone had spent all day hearing the trial.
The seven-person jury reached its guilty verdict in less than an hour, finding Delaney guilty of disturbing a meeting.
The foreperson, who announced the meeting, was a woman from New Boston whose husband is a federal border patrol agent at the bridge.
Delaney declined to comment to the Independent on the verdict, but White said he was satisfied with the decision. White said he felt hearing speakers in an orderly fashion is necessary to keep the positive flow of the meetings.
By Rosemary K. Otzman