Soldotna guide sentenced for dousing protesters

Posted: Tuesday, July 29, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) A Soldotna fishing guide was sentenced Monday to 320 hours of community service for dumping water on street-corner peace demonstrators last spring while his son was fighting in Iraq.

Jeff Webster drew the relatively stiff sentence for three misdemeanor counts of harassment and violating constitutional rights after he refused to say he was sorry or had learned a free-speech lesson, though he promised not to do it again.

Magistrate David Landry said at the sentencing in Kenai he wanted to make plain that the community was ''standing firm'' in defense of constitutional rights.

He ordered Webster to do 80 hours of service to nonprofit organizations for each of two harassment counts or else serve 10 days in jail on each count. Webster was sentenced to an additional 160 hours of community service and a suspended 120-day jail term on the rare constitutional charge, which Landry called the most important issue of the case.

Webster dumped five-gallon buckets of water from a passing pickup on the demonstrators twice, despite a warning from Soldotna police. He was convicted by a jury July 11.

''I want to make clear to everyone who might feel similarly situated that they are not to threaten, intimidate or in some way force people not to express their fundamental American right,'' said Landry, a four-year veteran of the bench. He said Webster could have organized a counter-demonstration instead of getting physical.

Landry said the case had received more attention than any he's handled.

Webster's defense attorney, Wayne Anthony Ross, argued that his client had acted ''under severe emotional strain'' that would not be repeated now that his son, a U.S. Marine, had returned safely to the United States. Meanwhile, Ross contended, the community had benefited from Webster's action by getting a civics lesson.

But Landry agreed with prosecutor June Stein, who argued that if there had been a civics lesson, Webster, 44, had flunked it.

''I would have loved to hear you say, 'I've learned a lot through this process, I now see I was wrong and I want to apologize to all those people,' ''Landry said as he handed down his sentence.

Moments earlier, when Webster rose to speak, Landry had asked him what he'd learned.

''I learned I should have went about it in a different way,'' Webster said. ''I didn't realize at the time throwing water was such a huge thing.''

But did he have anything to say to the victims?

''I'd like to tell them that people are hurt by certain actions,'' Webster said.

He said he had not opposed the peace demonstrators, but they went too far by displaying a picture of wounded Marines in a field hospital. The photo was linked on a sign to a photo of wounded Iraqi civilians, calling both of them ''Casualties of War.'' Webster referred to the photo as ''dead Marines.''

''No matter what happens here today, the pain won't be equal to the pain inflicted on me and my family at that intersection,'' Webster told the judge.

Webster said later he knew the judge was fishing for an apology, but he was not going to give it to him, a stance supported by his attorney, a former candidate for the Republican nomination for governor.

''He wouldn't have been true to his convictions,'' Ross said afterward. ''He was the guy that was harassed.''

Webster contended that by setting up their daily demonstration at Soldotna's busiest intersection, protesters had targeted him. He lived seven-tenths of a mile from the intersection and had been noted for his efforts to build community support for the troops. They were free to protest the war, he said, but should have done it somewhere else.

During the trial, the demonstrators denied any such personal motive.

''He wants the protesters to know it's still all about him,'' prosecutor Stein said during the sentencing. ''Mr. Webster still hasn't come to grips with the fact that he's committed crimes here.''

Several of the demonstrators said that they were not happy with the sentence. They said they did not want Webster to go to jail, since that might make him a martyr. What they wanted was anger-management counseling for Webster, some mediated conversation with his victims and ''a change of heart.''

''I don't think the sentence delivers the message it should,'' said Karli Woltering, one of the organizers.

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