Saturday, October 23, 2021

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Graham, NC 27253
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D.A.’s efforts in protest cases need shoring up

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More of the court cases, stemming from demonstrations and protests last year around the Historic Court House, are scheduled to resume next week.

We’re a bit concerned by some of the developments in a few of the cases that have already been heard or, in some cases, dismissed.

In particular, we note with growing concern the number of instances in which the retired visiting judge who is presiding over these cases, William Lunsford Long, III, has admonished the assistant district attorney handling the cases for shortcomings in ensuring that witnesses were present.

District attorney Sean Boone has designated one of his assistant district attorneys, Kevin Harrison, to serve as the sole point person on all of the cases involving about 56 separate defendants charged in the protest cases last year; some defendants have multiple charges for offenses at more than one protest.

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A little over half of these defendants, 30, have trials still pending. At the rate they have been handled since February 17 when the first of the cases began to be heard (i.e., two to five or so each Wednesday, the one day a week they are being adjudicated), the courts will be tied up with these 2020 cases for quite a few months more.

We’re not at all sure that Boone’s decision to invest Harrison with sole responsibility for these cases is a sound one.

In at least one instance, it appears that the case was dismissed because the witness against the defendant was not present – and it appeared from the courtroom context that the witness had not even been notified of the court date so that she could be there.

On another occasion, the judge was understandably irritated to learn that the arresting officer in one of the cases was not present – and, again, it did not appear that the officer had been notified of his need to be present. In that instance, the judge gave a few hours notice to have the officer appear, which he did. However, the case was ultimately dismissed anyhow.

Additionally, all aspects of all of the cases should be handled in open court. We keep being told that judge Long is hearing all the cases, but our reporter keeps finding other court filings that indicate that another judge has handled a few cases.

Both for logistical reasons, as well as for strengthened expertise, it appears obvious to us that the D.A.’s office needs to reinforce both its staffing and courtroom effort beyond its current one-man approach with Harrison. We don’t know Mr. Harrison, but we’re sure he’s a fine young man; but it appears he needs some experienced reinforcements to assist in a more effective prosecution of these cases.

By our rough calculation, there have been about 60 separate protests, marches, or other demonstrations in Graham since the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day 2020. (And more for 2021 have begun, this week on Tuesday and Wednesday, with two arrests on Tuesday.)

The purpose(s) of the events seems to morph from one cause to another, most involving some aspect of, or combination, of “Black Lives Matter,” racial justice, support for one or another police shooting victim, and opposition to police and law enforcement generally – especially sheriff Terry Johnson and, increasingly, Graham’s new police chief, Kristy Cole.

Earlier this month, Boone told the newspaper that all of the protest cases “had the same basic issues. [Having Harrison handle all of the cases] was sheer judicial economy and the most efficient way to ensure that the cases were handled in a consistent manner.”

What was especially troubling to us, and we suspect to many other Alamance County residents, was Boone’s rather casual, almost indifferent, attitude toward the seriousness of the charges against protesters.

“We’re going to give precedence to more serious cases; we actually have serious cases with victims, who [are also entitled to] their day in court,” Boone continued, pointing to two murder cases that he intends to try personally, including one which predates his election as D.A. in 2018.

We don’t necessarily expect the district attorney to divert his prosecutorial expertise from murder trials or other significant cases, but we do expect that he would direct enough resources from his office with sufficient command and mastery, to assist Harrison to ensure that the best, most experienced, and best equipped attorneys are working on the effective prosecution of these cases.

It is certainly obvious enough that many defendants have secured knowledgeable and high-profile attorneys who are putting on an effective defense, sometimes at Harrison’s – and thus the D.A.’s, the state’s, and thus the taxpayers’ – expense.

What Boone doesn’t seem to acknowledge with such almost disinterested comments is the “actual victims” in these protest cases are, collectively, the citizens of Alamance County.

First, it should be emphasized that the rule of law must be respected and upheld. That’s part of Boone’s primary responsibility, and we think he should place greater emphasis on that duty rather than dismissively categorizing these charges as low-level misdemeanors.

Alamance County have had to shell out tens of thousands of dollars in additional expenses for added law enforcement presence around the courthouse over the past year in an effort to “keep the peace” between and among the various protesters.

Another category of “actual victim,” we would argue are Graham business people who in addition to fighting the impact from the coronavirus pandemic must also deal with the perceptions about the safety and attractiveness of the downtown area.

In fact, some early indications from this week’s renewed demonstrations in Graham are that heckling and intimidation of downtown businesses, shoppers, and diners may become the newest tactic for the protesters, which further underscores the need for the D.A.’s office to treat the pending cases seriously.

Additionally, some of the protesters and counter-protesters have gotten into verbal squabbles – and even fisticuffs.

Oftentimes, the purpose of law enforcement’s presence has been to try to lower the temperature and prevent the hostilities between the two groups from escalating into more serious violence.

We recognize that most of the protest charges are only misdemeanors, but if the D.A.’s office does not treat them with the seriousness that they deserve, we suspect he and the citizens of Alamance County will have more and more of these to deal with in coming months – in addition to those from last year’s batch that still must be handled.

With the exception of the pending unindicted felony charge against Rev. Gregory Drumwright of Greensboro, who organized several of the demonstrations including the most volatile one from October 31, most of the 2020 protest cases involve Class 2 misdemeanor offenses, such as disorderly conduct or resisting a public officer.

We’re not consumed with what punishments are meted out, but we are concerned with whether the effort to convict is substantive.

Boone might want to give a primer for local law enforcement to ensure that they dot all their i’s and cross their t’s with respect to procedural aspects of new arrests. (There’s no “fixing” any shortcomings from arrests made last year.)

But he and his office need to approach these cases with the same seriousness and resolve that local law enforcement agencies have – and, quite frankly, that it appears the visiting judge is.

Otherwise, we fear we’ll all face an escalation in tempers, rhetoric (most of which is protected until it reaches the tone of inciting a riot), and even violence itself.

Law enforcement has thus far ensured that Graham hasn’t become like so many other cities and towns across the country. The district attorney’s office should join in with a more intense focus on ensuring justice for demonstrators, counter-demonstrators, law enforcement, and the public alike.

 

Vote Jim Butler, Harold Owen, Ronnie Wall

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