“Why did a Federal agent approach me?” Joshua Stafford asked this morning, slouched at the table he'd shared only moments earlier with his co-defendants. The courtroom on the 17th floor of the Federal Building seemed to seize up all at once when the words unexpectedly hit the air, from the packed gallery to the lawyers flanking the conference tables. Heads inched forward, trying to catch the first full sentences to leak from one of the men arrested last week for trying to bomb the Route 82 bridge.
“Why did a Federal agent approach me,” the 23-year-old repeated, aiming his comment at U.S. Magistrate Greg White. The defendant then rambled off into a jag of talk suggesting he was coerced by a federal agent into the plot and should be released immediately, his voice hauling uphill from quiet and nervous to defiantly frustrated.
“Mr. Stafford has a history of mental illness,” his lawyer told the court, trying to cut in on his client. White also did his best to break off the outburst. “This is not in your best interest today,” the magistrate politely explained. “I do not have the authority to dismiss the case even if I wanted to.”
But Stafford was undeterred. As he got to his feet, the defendant – a slinky guy in government-issue orange overalls topped with a wild bush of light hair – reiterated he was set up. Even after U.S. Marshals left with the chained defendant, past the spectators and out a doorway, his voice still echoed from the hallway announcing his innocence.
It was the only hitch in the short hearing, which included the official arraignment of the five men – Stafford, Douglas Wright, 26, Brandon Baxter, 20, Anthony Hayne, 35, and Connor Stevens, 20 – suspected of trying to blow the bridge in a piece of anarchist street theater.
Since the arrests last week, a lot has been spinning through the media cycle about the group's possible ties to the Occupy movement or the possibly too-active role a now-outed FBI informant might have played in the planning.
But today – outside of Stafford's statement – was pretty muted, the basic legal nuts and bolts: each defendant politely entered a not guilty plea; each then was led back into custodial embrace of the federal system until trial, tossing stray stony looks or nods toward friends and family in attendance.
And the crowd was significant on more than one level. First off, there was a crowd. By the time the hearing got moving, the rows in the courtroom were at capacity, the overflow against the walls. In the half hour or so before the proceedings began, the hallway outside the chamber was filled with about 60 people. And although adults were sprinkled throughout the group, the majority were young, most hovering around 25 and looking the part.
It could have been a crowd waiting for a college lecture to start, coming in all the twentysomething shapes and sizes. Their haircuts ranged from tidy salon chops to slam pit shaves, ropey dreads to the watercolor shades of a kitchen dye job; beards both undergrad wispy and woodsy thick; skate shoes and loafers; a pair of handmade “Free the Cleveland 5” shirts; heart-a-gram decorated jean jackets; discount bin sport coats studded with slogan buttons; baggy graduation suits that would have fit a few years back; new dress shirts still vertically creased from where they were recently folded on a store shelf.
We bring this all up because it hammered in a point that, depending on whatever premature conclusions you've pulled together already about the bombers, will either scare you shitless or stir in some sympathy: most of the people involved in the plot can't even legally rent a car. But, then again, young and stupid isn't a good legal defense.