CLAYTON, MO –(KMOX)–Almost two years after the national uproar over health care reform, a jury has acquitted two labor union activists accused of assaulting a man selling conservative buttons outside a Cogressman Russ Carnahan town hall forum.
Service Employees International Union members Elston McCowan and Perry Molens had been accused of misdemeanor assault in the August, 2009 tussle with button salesman Kenneth Gladney. The fight caught national attention at a time when there was rampant speculation the union had been dispatched to tamp down opposition to President Obama’s health care reform.
Jurors heard conflicting testimony in the two-day trial over who actually started the fight, and they viewed video tape showing the end and aftermath of the brawl — but no video showed who threw the first punch.
Gladney, who took the witness stand wearing a neck brace, testified that McCowan had started the fight by cursing him for displaying an offensive President Obama button, and then slapping Gladney’s hand. Gladney testified that Molens then joined in the attack against him.
McCowan testified that Gladney was the first to turn what had been a verbal argument into a physical fight. Molens testified that he came upon a fight in progress and pulled Gladney off his fellow union member McCowan.
McCowan and Molens were represented by high-profile defense attorney Paul D’ Agrosa, whose legal fees, McCowan said, were paid by the union. During his closing argument, D’ Agrosa questioned whether Gladney was wearing a neck brace to the trial for sympathy, saying it reminded him of a “Brady Bunch” episode.
Gladney had testified that he underwent recent neck surgery not related to the August 2009 fight. Later, outside the court, Gladney told a reporter he belived his neck problems were the result of “blunt trauma” he suffered in the fight.
Gladney was represented by a prosecutor with the St. Louis County Counselor’s office, Shujat Qalbani. In his closing, Qalbani asked the jury to “use common sense” in considering whether the shorter and thinner Gladney would have picked a fight with two union members who were bigger and taller than him.
D’Agrosa countered that Gladney had started the fight, despite his size, because he was enraged by McCowan calling him an “Uncle Tom” for displaying the negative Obama button. D’Agrosa also asked the jury to consider that the only participant in the fight with “documented injuries” was McCowan, who had been treated for a dislocated shoulder and broken shoulder bone.
After the verdict, the two SEIU members were pleased. “I’m glad that this is over and I won,” McCowan said, “I don’t have anything else to say.”
Molens was more outspoken. “Finally after two years of lies and distortion the jury got to hear the truth,” Molens said. “They got to see the evidence that wasn’t on Ann Coulter or some right wing blogs, and within 40 minutes they acquitted us.”
The alleged beating victim, Kenneth Gladney, left the court house dejected. “I waited two years for justice and didn’t get it,” Gladney said, “I have to live with this for the rest of my life. I have to live with the fact that they beat the hell out of me for no reason.”
Gladney gave the St. Louis County prosecutor who handled his case mixed marks. “How much of a chance did I have with a one-year attorney with a prime attorney like D’Agrosa?”