Tuesday, February 4, 1997
Meter trial might become nasty
Prosecutor says grandma image masks the facts

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sylvia Stayton, whose arm was injured in her Oct. 24 arrest, goes on trial Wednesday.
(Enquirer file photo)
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The meter made it notorious, but technically, the yellow parking device has little to do with the case against Sylvia Stayton.

The Clifton grandmother was arrested for allegedly interfering with the official duties of a Cincinnati police officer - not for plugging spare change into the expired meters of strangers.

But ever since the 63-year-old was arrested Oct. 24, allegations that she violated a police order have been overshadowed by the perception that Mrs. Stayton was handcuffed for doing a good deed.

With Mrs. Stayton's trial about to begin, the lead prosecutor is worried that eight jurors will not - as the defense is hoping - be able to get past that notion and focus on what happened the afternoon Mrs. Stayton and Officer Edward Johnson met on Short Vine Street in Corryville.

''I think I'm going to have a very, very difficult time because of the parking meter,'' said Ernest McAdams Jr., the chief assistant prosecutor for Cincinnati. ''No matter what I say or do, I think they will still focus on the parking meter. They're going to look at me and think, 'Don't police officers have better things to do?' ''

The case isn't that simple, Mr. McAdams said.

He readily admits that the high-profile trial would not be starting Wednesday in Hamilton County Municipal Court - under a national spotlight - if Mrs. Stayton had stopped plugging meters when Officer Johnson told her it was against the law to refeed them.

But, as both sides agree, Mrs. Stayton did not stop.

The prosecution says she was flouting the law; the defense says she didn't even have time to comprehend the law, much less defy it.

''As far as we're concerned, the money was in the first meter before he said anything,'' defense attorney David Scacchetti said. ''And within seconds, she's already putting money in the second meter, and she's already being told she's under arrest.''

Prosecutors say there may be more to it than that. Mrs. Stayton almost certainly will testify. She could, over objections, face questions about what prosecutors say are possible ties to anti-government militia organizations, Mr. McAdams said. The defense denies such allegations.

''We can't just start off cross-examining her by saying, 'Are you a member of the militia?' and knowing that's incendiary,'' Mr. McAdams said. ''If she gets up there and says, 'I believe in the U.S. government; I believe in following the law,' that opens the door to ask about her associations.''

Mr. McAdams said he has reason to believe she has such ties based on, among other factors, her comments when Officer Johnson told her she was under arrest.

At that point, she began ''yelling, 'You're not the police; you can't arrest me,' " Officer Johnson testified at a November hearing.

Mr. Scacchetti says his client said that because she thought Officer Johnson was a parking-enforcement officer. He also said attempts to discredit Mrs. Stayton are nothing more than desperate maneuvers by prosecutors who ''are grasping.''

''Maybe she's the reincarnation of Ma Barker, and maybe she's every other bad person you want to imagine,'' Mr. Scacchetti said, ''because maybe the prosecution wants everyone to believe she's not the sweet, 63-year-old mother and grandmother with no criminal record that she is.''

If Mrs. Stayton is convicted of obstructing official business and disorderly conduct, she faces a maximum of four months in jail.

Prosecutors repeatedly have offered to let her plead guilty to a substantially reduced charge of remetering. But she has refused the plea, which would not involve jail time or a criminal record.

''She's principled and still at this point - with all the pressure and accusations - still believes she did nothing wrong,'' Mr. Scacchetti said.

She has received support - and some checks - from people around the world. She has appeared on morning talk shows, late-night programs, television news magazines and been featured in newspapers across the globe.

The spotlight will follow her into the courtroom as well: NBC, CBS and Court TV are among the media outlets that have notified Municipal Judge John A. West that they expect to cover the trial.

Mr. McAdams said he may present testimony about the reason for the law against remetering: to encourage turnover of parking spaces in front of businesses.

Mr. Scacchetti expects the trial to be ''very simple. I just want to present it to the people and have them use their common sense,'' he said.