The ANSWER: Not Guilty
"The prosecutor ought to be run out of office. Tell him I said so."-Marjorie Heins, director, ACLU National Art Censorship ProjectAfter a year of preparation, amid threats and counter threats between the prosecutor and a squad of pro bono lawyers working with the American Civil Liberties Union, the two-week ANSWER Me! trial came to an end on Feb. 1.A Bellingham, Wash., jury acquitted two booksellers of felony charges of distributing lewd material for profit for selling the controversial 'zine ANSWER Me! #4, which is published by Jim Goad of Portland. The ANSWER Me! series is intentionally shocking, with previous issues devoted to such subjects as serial killers and suicide victims.As always, Goad was gracious in victory: "The government's predatory behavior in this case is indistinguishable from sexual predation, going after the littler, weaker enemy, trying to force their will upon them."Though clearly a victory for free-speech advocates, the acquittal left many questions unanswered-and it was not the vindication of the 'zine for which some had hoped.The acquittal, jurors said after entering their verdict, had nothing to do with ANSWER Me!'s literary merit but was based on the more technical question of the prosecution's failure to prove that the defendants had knowledge that the 'zine was obscene."They were divided on the value of it," said defense coordinator Breean Beggs, "and that's why they got down to knowledge. They said, 'Well, regardless of what I think of the magazine, [the defendants] didn't know.'""The jury really understood that these two booksellers were being put in an impossible situation-to somehow predict what one prosecutor might think was obscene."Goad himself was scheduled to testify but was sent home after two days of successful defense testimony from other witnesses. The defense team felt he would be a difficult witness. "Words the defense lawyers used," Goad recounted, "were 'hotheaded,' 'uncontrollable,' 'unpredictable.'"Given the successes the defense had with witnesses such as ANSWER Me! contributing cartoonist Molly Kiely and prison rape activist Stephen "Donny the Punk" Donaldson, the potential benefits of having Goad testify paled when placed against the negative prospect of his cross-examination."It's sort of frustrating," said Goad, "to prepare to look this guy in the eyes for a year and not be able to do it."As strongly presented as the defense's case was, it was met by a prosecution that was outnumbered, disorganized, weak in its research and suffering from basic lawyering inadequacies. Of the seven prosecution witnesses slated to testify, two were disqualified because they entered the courtroom and watched the trial before they were called. The defense also surprised the prosecution by exposing in cross-examination a prosecution witness' conviction for receiving stolen property.Whatcom County prosecutor Dave McEachran did not return Willamette Week's calls. However, his voice-mail system said that the district attorney's office is operating on restricted hours due to budgetary constraints."McEachran, to his credit, is one of the only elected prosecutors in this state who actually tries cases," Beggs said. "He's got two death penalty cases coming up later this month. They're very busy. They always say that they're very understaffed over there."Given the budgetary limitations, however, the question on many minds in Whatcom County is why McEachran decided to press the obscenity trial at all. "I think he just decided he was going to prosecute this come hell or high water, and he did," Beggs said.Estimates of the county's cost to pursue the case are around $100,000, with defense costs-at two to three times that-possibly coming out of Whatcom County's pocket as well. But McEachran's woes might not end with the acquittal and possible award of legal fees to the defense. With the not-guilty verdict, the defendants' federal suit against him for threats of prosecution he made against the bookstore before filing charges will continue."The prosecutor made threats which were completely unconstitutional," said Marjorie Heins, director of the ACLU's National Art Censorship Project in New York, "[as in] 'This is obscene and you'd better stop selling it, or I'll prosecute you.' This kind of retaliation -- the charges if people don't obey -- is a serious problem. The prosecutor ought to be run out of office. Tell him I said so."In the wake of the trial, Goad is unrepentant: "I'm more committed than ever to pissing off these people who live unexamined lives," he says. "I don't really think I got a chance up there to vent my spleen. I felt somewhat stifled up there by the whole process."