A municipal court jury Wednesday found local artist Lee Mulcahy guilty of littering after a trial that saw testimony from Aspen’s mayor, the Aspen Art Museum director, police officers and artists.
The jury of three women and three men reached the verdict after 13 minutes of deliberation, not surprising considering Mulcahy in his opening statement admitted to dropping off various items outside the museum in October because he was frustrated, apparently for being banned from the museum.
Mulcahy, who represented himself, tried to argue that he is the victim of “political retribution” because of his outspokenness and his campaign for mayor last year. He also said the items constituted a “protest sculpture” and therefore didn’t fall under the city’s littering ordinance.
“If I could take that installation back and not do it, I would,” he said.
But amid an onslaught of objections from prosecutor Angela Roff — who the municipality brought in after the city attorney’s office recused itself, citing online statements made by Mulcahy — Judge Brooke Peterson repeatedly rebuffed him.
“Whether it’s art is not at issue today, only your actions,” he told the defendant.
On Oct. 8, museum surveillance cameras captured Mulcahy, who has waged a war of words with a variety of organizations for years, drive up to the institution and drop off a child’s bike, an empty planter’s pot, metal springs and a dryer vent. He left the items on the public sidewalk and drove away.
A museum security guard testified that he took the items inside and called police to make a report. Police officers Ryan Turner and Marcin Debski said that both the large “Don’t tread on me” flag Mulcahy flies from his truck, and the vehicle itself, were visible in the surveillance footage.
“How did you know it was my truck?” he asked Debski.
“You have a very unusual truck,” the officer said.
Roff repeatedly objected when Mulcahy called the mayor a communist, talked of Aspen being “Moscow in the mountains” and confirmed with Debski that the officer is from a nation that belonged to the Eastern Bloc. He asked if Debski lives in affordable housing and tried to talk about APCHA, because he said that case and Wednesday’s trial involved government overreach.
“The art museum has it out for me because I made a joke” about giving people $100 if they climbed the museum’s exterior and made it to top, he said.
Yet another sustained objection came when Mulcahy asked Debski if he believed Aspen’s police chief “is a political storm trooper” for the mayor.
After numerous objections from Roff related to the relevancy of his questions, Mayor Steve Skadron simply said no when Mulcahy asked him if the city manager, city attorney and Skadron had conspired to bring the littering case against him.
Roff made so many objections that the judge sustained that they brought, at one point, tight, weary grins to a few jurors’ faces.
Mulcahy’s day in court was rough from the start. During jury selection, one man mentioned Mulcahy’s long fight with the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority, which prevailed in district and appellate court to evict him for employment and residency violations.
“No, I don’t have a very high opinion of you,” the man said, calling his various actions over the years “despicable.”
A woman told Mulcahy that he “was too volatile” and that she would never hire him.
His questions to prospective jurors — he asked the 70 or so people in the city hall courtroom where they were born, eliciting a handful of various cities, and if they had heard of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei — drew many exasperated chuckles.
“Did anyone vote for me?” he asked, causing Roff’s first objection in which she said that voting history and political party affiliation were not relevant to whether Mulcahy littered.
When Skadron said the littering citation was never brought up in his office, the defendant said, “I don’t believe him.” The judge told the jury to disregard that. More objections about relevance followed as Mulcahy asked him about the business Skadron runs and whether he meets with Aspen Skiing Co. officials.
“Are you hiding behind your city attorney?” he asked the mayor, who didn’t have to answer because the objection was sustained.
“Mr. Mulcahy, do not impugn the reputation of any of the witnesses,” Judge Peterson said.
“I can’t seem to ask anything that you think is relevant,” he said.
On this, there was no objection.
Art museum director Heidi Zuckerman, in one of the few questions she answered amid the stream of objections, said AAM had a city permit for a wall exhibition outside the building. She also denied retaliating against Mulcahy.
Mulcahy also called to testify his mother, who made religious statements about her family’s mission trips to Africa, causing the judge to tell her to limit comments to the matter at hand. She wasn’t on the stand long, nor were the two artists he called.
One, who asked if she could tell the story of how her art career helped pay for her house, asked if it was relevant to the littering trial, causing more chuckles.
Mulcahy himself testified, ticking off items on his resumé and admitting, under cross examination, that it was him on the video dropping off the items. But he said he believed his actions were protected under the First Amendment. In his closing statement, he said he had tried in vain to apologize to Zuckerman and “kindly begged” the jury to find that the items were not litter, telling them that they could send him to jail for a year, which begat another objection because judges in Colorado, not juries, handle sentencings.
Roff told jurors that the case concerned littering, not art, and that Mulcahy clearly violated the ordinance and admitted to doing so.
After the verdict, the judge ordered Mulcahy to pay the original $150 fine and $35 in court costs, ruling that jail time was not warranted given the offense, nor was community service. The judge said he’d leave it up to the public to decide whether jurors and other participants in the trial had completed their own community service.