It was hard to tell who won in the case of an irate senior citizen who assaulted a peaceful, sign-carrying demonstrator in Santa Fe.
Defendant Gary O’Brien, 72, walked out of a courtroom Friday with a smile. The victim, Brent Lambert, was incensed, especially at defense lawyer Tom Clark’s misstatements of what happened.
O’Brien pleaded no contest in Santa Fe Municipal Court. Judge Spence Pacheco fined him $300 and placed him on unsupervised probation for 90 days.
Lambert, 53, had suggested O’Brien spend a full day in jail and that he be required to take a course in anger management. Pacheco rejected both ideas.
The judge said she hears a range of criminal cases, some involving fighting or other violence. O’Brien’s conviction for assault, a petty misdemeanor, meant he stopped short of punching, kicking or other battery.
“This is not the kind of criminal defendant that would go to jail,” Pacheco said.
Lambert criticized her decision outside the courtroom. “The judge has made it clear: You can threaten someone multiple times with violence, even on a recording, and the penalty is a slap on the wrist.”
Lambert said O’Brien engaged him in four separate encounters, the last one leading to the criminal charge. It began last summer, when O’Brien steered his way into Lambert’s roadside demonstrations.
Lambert began as a lone picketer against Santa Fe resident John Eastman, a retired law professor and key adviser to defeated President Donald Trump in his attempts to overturn the 2020 election.
Lambert demonstrated against Eastman on the corner of Bishops Lodge Road and Valley Drive. He chose that spot because it’s in the neighborhood where Eastman resides, though the law professor’s home is several blocks away.
As for O’Brien, he lives more than a mile from the spot where Lambert demonstrated. But in a confrontation recorded by Lambert on his watch, O’Brien made clear he didn’t like seeing a demonstrator in his neighborhood.
On July 1, Lambert was carrying a sign as he stood on the southeast corner of the intersection. Defense lawyer Clark told the judge “Mr. Lambert sought out my client.”
That would have been a neat trick, seeing that O’Brien was driving an SUV and Lambert was on foot. O’Brien pulled onto the dirt shoulder of the road near Lambert when he simply could have driven home.
Clark told the judge the minuteslong confrontation between O’Brien and Lambert “occurred in the middle of the street.” This would be have been an impossibility on heavily trafficked Bishops Lodge Road.
Clark also said Lambert “baited my client to get out of the car.” Clark based much of that argument on the audio recording in which Lambert said “hi” to O’Brien and called him by name. Lambert said a pal from the neighborhood had identified O’Brien after the motorist had called Lambert a “commie queer” and threatened him with physical violence a couple days earlier.
“To hear a lawyer testify against me with blatant lies, and the judge not letting me speak again to refute that, was incredibly difficult,” Lambert said.
Clark countered that his arguments were based on his interpretation of what the recording revealed. If he had misspoken on a fact, Clark said, he’s sure the city prosecutor would have been quick to right the wrong.
Prosecutor Frank Ruybalid did a good job of framing the case as one in which Lambert was threatened with bodily harm for exercising his First Amendment rights.
In the recording, O’Brien said America was his country, not Lambert’s. Threats followed.
Lambert: “So you’re getting out of your car and coming after me.”
O’Brien: “Are you gonna run?”
Lambert: “I am not gonna run.”
O’Brien: “You better run you [expletive] punk.”
After this, O’Brien shifted his line of verbal attack, claiming someone in city government had told him Lambert sprayed anti-Eastman graffiti on a bridge in the neighborhood. Lambert says he had nothing to do with any graffiti. No one from the city has accused him of any crime.
Clark’s arguments influenced Judge Pacheco. A former Santa Fe-area district attorney, Pacheco begun the hearing by fawning over Clark’s courtroom skills. With everyone wearing masks, Pacheco asked Clark to speak into a microphone. “Since you’re so eloquent, I want to hear everything you have to say,” she told him.
Clark described what happened as a loud disagreement over politics between two adults acting like children. Pacheco would later make a similar assessment, saying the case saddened her because it sounded like her children when they were small.
Lambert left in disappointment. He has gained a following on the corner of Valley Drive and Bishops Lodge Road. More demonstrators against Eastman have joined the cause.
Lambert, who is gay, received support from a female demonstrator who objected to O’Brien’s derogatory comments. She wore a button to court that said, “I love commie queers.”
Lambert will be back on the corner, perhaps leading the judge to offer a parting piece of advice. She told O’Brien to stay away from him.