Soldotna water thrower found guilty

Posted: Sunday, July 13, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) The Soldotna man accused of dousing peace demonstrators with water has been found guilty of harassment and violating other people's constitutional rights.

The jury, however, cleared Jeff Webster Friday of two charges against him, including a misdemeanor assault charge for getting in a demonstrator's face and allegedly bumping his chest.

But the jury verdict upheld the main thrust of the state's case that Webster crossed a criminal line when he twice drove by the demonstrators in March and April and doused them with buckets of cold water from the back of his pickup truck before driving off.

Webster, 44, testified Friday he wanted to drive the demonstrators away from the main intersection in Soldotna because their presence tormented his family. Webster is the father of a U.S. Marine.

''You had made the decision about where they should stand,'' assistant district attorney June Stein told him during questioning.

''Me, as head of my family,'' he agreed.

''They were exercising their rights, and Jeff Webster decided they were not going to be allowed to do that,'' Stein later told the six-person jury. ''That's what being an American is about. Being able to talk freely, openly, in a public place.''

Magistrate David Landry set sentencing for July 28. Stein said the three misdemeanor convictions could net a maximum of a year and a half in jail. She said she planned to consult with his victims the anti-war demonstrators before recommending a sentence.

Webster said that he was happy the verdict was mixed and that he was found not guilty of assault. About the dousings he was unrepentant, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

Webster said he was frustrated that rulings from the judge had prevented his defense attorney, former gubernatorial candidate Wayne Anthony Ross, from grilling the protesters about their anti-war beliefs. Ross complained that he'd been ''handcuffed'' by the judge.

Testifying in his own defense Friday before a crowded courtroom, Webster admitted he'd poured the buckets of water after yelling at the demonstrators to go somewhere else. The ''Y'' intersection in Soldotna where they stood was seven-tenths of a mile from his house, which was decorated with yellow ribbons to mark the absence of his 22-year-old son, Shane Webster, a Marine who'd been deployed to Iraq.

Webster wept several times as he talked of his son, describing how as a father he would ''worry that the next car that pulls in my driveway will be a Marine Corps chaplain with a notice.'' Shane Webster has returned safely from Iraq and is scheduled to leave the Marines this summer.

Webster and Ross said the buckets of cold water were essentially harmless.

''We've all heard the phrase 'Let's throw cold water on that idea.' It's an American phrase,'' Ross said in his closing argument.

But Stein said the demonstrators had a right to be frightened, not knowing what kind of liquid had just been poured over them by a stranger. Demonstrators testified that they were miserable after getting soaked on the windy days, with temperatures still below freezing.

The jury deliberated two hours before finding Webster guilty of two counts of harassment, a crime that involves ''offensive physical contact.''

They split their decision on the rare crime of violating civil rights. They found him guilty of a count of punishing the demonstrators for exercising their rights, but acquitted him of a parallel count of attempting to deprive them of their rights.

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