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Lawyer for 3 arrested before NATO summit under attack for releasing photo of purported undercover policeman

By Jason Meisner and Annie Sweeney, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — It was shortly before 2 a.m. on the eve of the NATO summit when the criminal-defense lawyer emerged from a West Side police station where three purported anarchists had just been charged with making four Molotov cocktails to firebomb political targets.

Prosecutors would not outline their terrorism case until hours later at a news conference. But outside that police station, Sarah Gelsomino, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, stepped in front of the bright TV lights, pulled out a legal pad and immediately began attacking the state’s case as a trumped-up, politically motivated intimidation campaign by the city.

“Charging these people who are here to peacefully protest against NATO for terrorism when in reality the police have been terrorizing activists in Chicago is absolutely outrageous,” Gelsomino said as demonstrators held up smartphones and streamed the statement live to YouTube.

With that, Gelsomino solidified her position as the public face of an aggressive effort to undercut the terrorism case against the out-of-town men known to supporters as the NATO 3. Two others were also charged with explosives-related offenses stemming from the same investigation.

In the following days, Gelsomino and her partners at the National Lawyers Guild took the extraordinary step of calling on activists to try to publicly identify two individuals believed to be police informants or undercover officers — known on the street as “Mo” and “Gloves” — who infiltrated the group and led to the arrests.

The Guild also emailed a news release with a photo of “Mo,” while acknowledging that he was possibly a Chicago police officer working undercover. Gelsomino was one of two contacts on the release.

In her efforts, some legal analysts said, Gelsomino walked a fine line between advocating passionately for a client and unethical behavior that could endanger undercover police or law enforcement informants. Experts called it a highly unusual if not unprecedented way to begin defending a case.

Retired Cook County Criminal Court Judge David Erickson, who teaches at Chicago-Kent College of Law, said criticism of the prosecution case — from calling wiretaps illegal to decrying the use of undercover cops or informants — is fair game. But he said identifying those inside an investigation is dangerous and not necessary so early in the case.

“It is not something I would teach a young lawyer to do,” said Erickson, also a former top county prosecutor. “I would expect more out of members of the bar. My job is to defend my client. My job is not to put somebody else’s life at risk.”

Gelsomino was not available for comment on the strategy on Friday, but Michael Deutsch, her co-counsel, said they have every right to thoroughly investigate the charges against their clients and determine the identities of informants and their interactions with the protest group.

“Our view is that these guys have been acting as provocateurs not only in this case, but other cases,” Deutsch said. “Just because they are police or working with police doesn’t give them a pass. I don’t think it’s unethical or improper. It would be improper for us as defense attorneys not to investigate.”

It has been a rapid rise to recognition for Gelsomino, 30, a 2008 graduate of DePaul University College of Law who worked as a law clerk in the Cook County public defender’s office before joining the high-profile People’s Law Office later that year.

She burst onto the scene in late 2011 as the defender of Occupy Chicago activists as that movement spread across the country. Earlier this year, Gelsomino helped defend about 90 Occupy Chicago protesters who challenged their arrests for refusing to leave Grant Park.

Veteran attorney G. Flint Taylor Jr., who helped bring Gelsomino to the People’s Law Office, said her intelligence and passion for progressive issues made her a natural fit for a firm long known for taking on police torture, racial discrimination and other civil rights cases.

“Sarah has a history of commitment to social justice that began long before she went to law school,” Taylor said. “We instantly saw her as a young lawyer who could fit into our firm in terms of what we believed in and how we fought for social justice.”

Gelsomino has limited courtroom experience, but she moves and speaks confidently, at times defiantly, and has no problem lobbing allegations at the most powerful people in the city.

After the first court hearings for the NATO 3, Gelsomino hailed her clients as peaceful protesters, blasted the police for framing them, ripped State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez for charging them with unprecedented terrorism-related counts and called Mayor Rahm Emanuel out for making Chicago a police state.

Critics said her comments helped galvanize the more radical NATO protesters, forming a rallying cry that was later used to mount clashes with police.

The tactics also drew the attention of Emanuel, who had much vested in a successful NATO weekend. Asked last week if it bothered him that photos of the undercover operatives — including those also released by Occupy Chicago — had been made public, Emanuel answered carefully.

“Yes. If what we think is happening, if what has been reported is happening, any issue that deals with violating what police are doing from a professional basis more than just upsets me,” Emanuel said. “Second is, I’ll just, I’ll stay with that.”

Police and prosecutors were predictably upset as well. Chicago Police Superintendent. Garry McCarthy lashed out at Gelsomino and her colleagues when he was asked about the tactics.

“I’m pretty outraged to hear that,” McCarthy said last week. “What they’re doing is they’re putting police officers’ lives in jeopardy right now. And I think that’s pretty disgusting, quite frankly.”

In a brief statement Friday, an Alvarez spokeswoman blasted the release of the photos as “irresponsible,” saying it could endanger not only the safety of law enforcement officers, but also “the overall integrity of these cases.”

The National Lawyers Guild’s public call to identify the undercover cops or informants has taken on a life of its own on the Internet.

On Friday, Chicago police said they learned of more online chatter about the photos. One Internet group identifying itself as the 101st Insurgency was offering a $1,000 reward for anyone who provided the “valid identity” of the informants or undercover officers.

A handful of criminal-defense attorneys reached for comment said they had never heard of such a bold move as the release of a photo of an informant. But some weren’t certain there was anything wrong with it, saying that the photo corroborates the defendants’ stories, and that the attorneys are simply trying to counter the criminal charges made against their clients.

Sam Adam Jr. said releasing the photo may be nothing more than a vigorous defense of a client “as long as it is not connected to a threat.”

Deutsch, Gelsomino’s co-counsel, acknowledged that their effort to identify the informants has been “more public than in your regular criminal case,” but he said that’s because of the role that social media plays within the Occupy movement.

“We are dealing with the era of the Internet … with people who communicate that way,” Deutsch said. “How do you get that information out to all these disparate groups? It’s investigation in the cyberage. Maybe the police chief is not used to it, but I don’t think it’s despicable in any sense of the word.”

He also scoffed at the notion that they were endangering the lives of informants.

“Were not dealing with guns or drug dealers or the Mafia. That would be a whole different story,” Deutsch said. “No one is saying to do any harm to (the informants). …These are not violent people. They’re protesters. Maybe sometimes they violate the law or are a little aggressive, but they’re not out to hurt anyone.”

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