Four protesters from the October 31 demonstration at the courthouse that ended with law enforcement deploying pepper spray to disperse the crowd were found guilty in district court Wednesday. Each of the four was arrested by the Alamance County sheriff’s office and charged with failure to disperse after deputies emerged from the courthouse, declared the rally over, and gave three warnings by bullhorn that the crowd should disperse.
Alamance County assistant district attorney Kevin Harrison initially appeared outmanned, squaring off Wednesday against the four defense attorneys representing four defendants charged with failing to leave the grounds of Alamance County’s Historic Court House last Halloween Day – but he ultimately prevailed, getting convictions in all four cases.
Retired visiting district court judge Lunsford Long, III of Orange County found all four defendants guilty late Wednesday afternoon, after hearing testimony from four Alamance County sheriff’s deputies that Harrison called.
Long also heard from two witnesses for the defense, including a man who testified Wednesday via video about how he had been asked to transport the red gas Honda generator and a speaker from Wayman Chapel on North Main Street, where the march started, to the Historic Court House for a short rally before proceeding to an early voting site at 201 South Elm Street.
Following the discovery of the gas generator and a gas can, in violation of a facilities use permit that had been granted for the courthouse grounds, the subsequent rally was declared an unlawful assembly, three dispersal orders were given, and pepper spray was deployed to clear the area.
The four defendants whose cases were tried jointly Wednesday were: Kani Bynum, 25, black male, of 104 Grovecrest Way, Greensboro;
Hannah Elyse Garcia, 22, white female, of 102 Campus Walk Trail, Elon;
Dionne Janiece Liles, 40, black female, of 12 Northeast Court Square, Graham;
and Timothy James Olson, 21, white male, of 724 Rollings Road, Springfield, Pennsylvania.
Both Garcia and Olson were described in court this week as students at Elon University.
After finding all four defendants guilty, Long agreed to enter prayers for judgment continued (meaning their convictions will not appear on their criminal records, barring any subsequent convictions on the same offense) and ordered them to pay court fines. The judge agreed to waive Liles’ fine, at her attorney’s request, citing a financial hardship.
Garcia had requested to be “tried by waiver,” Carrboro attorney Patrick Morgan of said Wednesday, telling Long that she had been present for earlier court dates but is a resident of San Antonio, Texas, where she is currently completing an internship.
Attorneys Emily Gibson of Raleigh, Jamey Lowdermilk of Greensboro, and James Doermann of Greensboro represented Bynum, Liles, and Olson, respectively, for their trials in district court.
In a brief opening statement, Harrison argued that three three separate dispersal orders had been given but the defendants chose to remain on the grounds of Alamance County’s Historic Court House and were arrested for failing to comply.
Morgan countered in his opening statement that the defendants “were well within their rights that are constitutionally protected,” including their rights to free speech and free assembly, to air grievances about their government, and to urge their fellow citizens to exercise their right to vote.
Alamance County sheriff’s deputy Pete Triolo was the first of four sheriff’s deputies to testify Wednesday, as the three other sheriff’s deputies were sequestered as they waited to testify, at the defense’s request.
Now a recurring witness at many of the previous 2020 protest trials, Triolo once again recounted his role in delivering the three dispersal orders, each timed five minutes apart, followed by a “one or two-minute delay,” once the rally had been declared an unlawful assembly. He described the chain of events that preceded the dispersal orders, set off by seeing a “gas can moving through the crowd” at 12:55 p.m. that Saturday afternoon. Once deputies discovered the gas-powered generator and attempted to remove it from the property, “the situation deteriorated,” testified, and the crowd became volatile, combative, agitated, and aggressive.
Reverting to his 22 years in the military, the retired Marine recalled being notified at “13:05,” or 1:05 p.m., that an assault had taken place, adding it was then when he had been directed to give the dispersal order to the crowd, Triolo testified Wednesday. “They were able to evacuate north, south, east, west, all four directions – anywhere but the courthouse,” said Triolo, who was initially positioned inside the historic court house until moving to the top of the steps at the north entrance. “The preponderance of the crowd did disperse; I remember Ms. Liles being one of the ones that did not disperse.”
Once the arrests were made, “we actually helped the organizers take down the equipment and clear the area,” Triolo testified Wednesday. During cross-examination by the defense team, the deputy repeatedly confirmed Wednesday that he had personally seen the red gas can moving through the crowd; had been told there was a generator; and was directed to give the dispersal orders by the “unified command” and “operations command,” which consisted of top-ranking officers from multiple law enforcement agencies, who Triolo said had been watching the events unfold from a remote location.
‘Protective equipment to make sure I go home to my family at the end of the day’
Gibson for her part asked Triolo what he had been wearing that day – and why – and whether it was his standard uniform. She also implied, without offering evidence, that the arrests had been preplanned, asking Triolo, “Would it surprise you to know that people on the arrest team planned on [arresting people] that day?”
on the danger of the gas cans and gas-powered generator:
“I was a fire chief for 10 years, and I understand the nature of combustible materials. The intent was to create a safe environment. When the crowd became combative, that was when the order was given to terminate the event.”
– Sheriff’s deputy Pete Triolo
“It would not, but nothing surprises me,” Triolo responded. He said he had been wearing his camouflage utility uniform, a mask, and ballistic vests, which he described as “protective equipment to make sure I go home to my family at the end of the day.”
Harrison countered, asking Triolo whether the intent had been to arrest people that afternoon.
The intent, the deputy responded, “was to secure the generator. I was a fire chief for 10 years, and I understand the nature of combustible materials. The intent was to create a safe environment. When the crowd became combative, that was when the order was given to terminate the event.”
‘Gas cans don’t hold batteries’
Asked by Doermann whether he had been told at 12:55 p.m. about the gas can, the deputy said, “I looked outside and saw the gas can with my own eyes.”
“Did y’all have a warrant to seize?” Doermann asked Triolo.
“Negative, but that was in violation of the permit,” he responded.
Quizzed by the defense about whether anyone from the sheriff’s department had spoken with the event organizers before attempting to seize the generator, Triolo said he couldn’t speak to that question. “I was only responsible for my little piece of the pie, and that’s what I was concerned with.”
“Did you examine the generator and gas can?” Gibson asked the deputy. “Are you familiar with generators these days?”
Triolo asked Gibson if she was trying to get at whether the generator could’ve been electric.
Defense: could the generator have been electric?
“I saw the red gas can; gas cans don’t hold batteries.”
– Sheriff’s deputy Pete Triolo
“Could it possibly have been?” Gibson asked.
“I saw the red gas can; gas cans don’t hold batteries,” Triolo responded.
Gibson also asked Triolo whether “chemical munitions” had been used that afternoon, which he confirmed. “Do you know if they were dispersed toward the ground, or in people’s faces?” the attorney continued.
Triolo testified that he has seen video showing that pepper fog was deployed “to push them off the grass,” referring to the crowd that had started moving in toward the courthouse and deputies in the course of the struggle over the generator. He said “a multitude of resources were utilized that day,” referring to multiple law enforcement agencies within the county and from other counties who assisted that day.
Alamance County sheriff’s deputy Seth Fraser later testified that he had part of a mobile field force that was deployed to the base of the steps on the north side of the courthouse and arrested Olson. He described hearing “a loud commotion,” many voices yelling loudly.
“I did notice there was a change from earlier, which was people talking and singing,” Frasier testified Wednesday.
Sheriff’s corporal Erika Perkins testified that she had been assigned to a “processing team” stationed in the basement inside the historic court house on October 31, before being ordered to go outside to assist the “arrest team,” though she said she was “eight, maybe 10 feet away” during the struggle over the generator. Perkins confirmed that the three dispersal orders were given after the struggle, and she had assisted with Garcia’s arrest.
Perkins said she had been ordered to go outside to assist deputies who went to retrieve the generator, though she wasn’t directly involved with that, adding, “I never laid my hands on the generator.”
Under cross-examination by the defense, the sheriff’s corporal said she was equipped with weapons that day and while she hadn’t deployed her pepper spray, she saw it “dispersed right after the spray,” acknowledging in response to a question from Long that it had gotten in her eyes.
Alamance County sheriff’s deputy Walter Reyes confirmed that he had been assigned to a team that was initially positioned on the east side of the historic court house but later joined a formation of deputies lined across the base of the steps at the north entrance. “What I recall [is] a minimum of three dispersal orders,” Reyes testified, adding that he had taken Bynum into custody on October 31.
‘When everything kind of broke loose’
The defense called Terrance Lee, a black male, who said he will finish his contract with the U.S. Marine Corps later this month and enroll at as full-time student at UNC-Greensboro.
Enlisted now for 7½ years, Lee said, “My role was to carry the generator and speaker being used at the start of the march and to keep it in front of the marchers so the speakers could be heard when they marched.” He testified to having used the cloth wagon, with the speaker on top, to transport the generator from the chapel to the courthouse.
After an 8-minute, 46-second silent tribute in memory of George Floyd had concluded, Lee said he was on the courthouse grounds, when a deputy approached “and asked if it was a generator, and I said ‘yes.’” Another member of the audio-visual team for Drumwright’s organization, who Lee identified as Brenden Kee, approached at the same time, asking the deputy “if there was an issue,” Lee testified via video Wednesday afternoon.
“The officer started to reach for the generator and said it couldn’t be here. The fellow team member said ‘we can remove the generator. [The next thing he knew, the deputy was reaching for the generator, as the crowd simultaneously closed in.] I removed myself from the situation when the crowd started moving in.”
– Defense witness terrance lee
“The officer started to reach for the generator and said it couldn’t be here,” Lee recalled. “The fellow team member said ‘we can remove the generator.’” The next thing he knew, the deputy was reaching for the generator, as the crowd simultaneously closed in, Lee said, adding, “I removed myself from the situation when the crowd started moving in.”
Lee said he wasn’t sure what happened next. “I moved myself because someone tapped me on the back; I thought it was an officer; later I found out it was another team member,” Lee testified. “I ended up getting pepper-sprayed [and] individuals from the stage started coming toward where the confrontation was occurring.”
Using a laptop camera, Harrison showed Lee several still photographs, captured before and during the struggle over the generator, asking the witness if Kee was “the same person here with his hands on the officer?”
“Yes,” Lee conceded, “he’s touching one of the officers.”
“When the officers approached, they did indicate they needed to remove the generator because it wasn’t allowed to be there and because it was a safety hazard?” Harrison pressed.
“And that’s when everything kind of broke loose?”
“We are here in peace and in love; we are here to build community – and in revolutionary love.”
– Defendant Dionne Janiece Liles
The defense also called Liles who recalled that she had been invited to speak at the rally but ultimately became an “impromptu medic,” providing comfort, water, saline solution, and a place to cool down – inside her consignment clothing store on Court Square – to protesters who had been sprayed and became disoriented. Asked by Long to summarize her speech, Liles recalled telling the crowd, “We are here in peace and in love; we are here to build community – and in revolutionary love.”
Liles said she remembered hearing Drumwright with a megaphone, “asking if they could honor the permit and to let us stay” before she raised her arms in the air to signal to the deputies that she was not resisting arrest.
Flurry of arguments fails to persuade judge to dismiss
Long ultimately rejected multiple attempts by the defense to persuade him to dismiss all of the charges against the defendants.
Morgan argued there was a “fatal variance” in the statement of charges outlined on the arrest warrants telling the judge, “they are charged with failing to vacate after violating the permit,” which didn’t meet the elements of the offense. Long agreed but gave Harrison an opportunity to amend the statement of charges, which the judge indicated is allowable under state rules of criminal procedure as long as the changes don’t affect the nature of the offenses.
Long was unpersuaded by Morgan’s argument that the charges should be dismissed “on sufficiency of the evidence,” insisting there was no reason to believe that disorderly conduct or a riot was occurring. Long called the still photographs captured from video and deputies’ testimony “compelling” evidence.
Gibson also made a motion to dismiss or “continue at the very least,” insisting that the amended charging documents would, in fact, alter the nature of the offenses. She subsequently moved to dismiss, contending that her client, Bynum, and at least one other defendant had been given an unusual constraint as a condition of their release: they were ordered not to return to the city of Graham for 72 hours, which she said violated their constitutional rights to prepare for their defense as guaranteed under the 6th and 14th amendments. Long rejected that argument.
Lowdermilk insisted that the defendants’ constitutional rights to confront witnesses would be violated, since none of the deputies who testified Wednesday were directly involved and had no personal knowledge of the arrests, or the events leading to them, which she called a “constitutional defect.” Long disagreed in denying the motion to dismiss on those grounds, as well.
“It was a clearly riotous encounter they chose to put a stop to, and that is their duty.”
– presiding district court judge lunsford long, III
“The volatility of that situation was there because the officers just took the generator,” Morgan argued. “This was a march to the polls on the last day of early voting. They were [redressing their] grievances to the government. They did not rush the courthouse.”
Long disagreed, saying “It was a clearly riotous encounter they chose to put a stop to, and that is their duty.”
“These individuals were given reasonable time to disperse, even after the orders were given, and they chose not to.”
– Asst. D.A. kevin Harrison
“They went to simply remove what they described was a safety hazard and were met almost immediately with physical resistance,” Harrison told the judge. “To suggest that just because the order to disperse was not given right as this melee was going on is unreasonable… These individuals were given reasonable time to disperse, even after the orders were given, and they chose not to.”
In finding all four defendants guilty, Long noted, “They all stood there and prepared to be arrested.”
Read earlier coverage of the event and arrests from October 31, 2020: https://alamancenews.com/23-arrested-during-halloween-demonstration-by-gpd-sheriffs-dept/