Bench verdict overturns district court conviction on the same count; first jury released for possible Covid exposure, second after judge makes ruling on dismissal
A visiting superior court judge granted a defense attorney’s motion Tuesday to dismiss a charge against a protester who had been arrested last September, part of a group protesting outside the sheriff’s office. The judge preempted any decision by the jury – the second one selected over two days this week – after dismissing the first jury Monday afternoon and declaring a mistrial in the case due to possible exposure to Covid-19.
Nicholas Lloyd Cassette, a 35-year-old black male who lives at 5892 Church Road in Graham, was found not guilty Tuesday afternoon of resisting a public officer during a protest outside the Alamance County sheriff’s office on September 8, 2020.
Cassette had been among a group of protesters who initially staged a protest outside the county office building at 124 West Elm Street – where the county commissioners were meeting inside – before marching a half-block away, to the Alamance County sheriff’s office along South Maple Street.
Cassette attended the protest outside the sheriff’s office to support stricter measures to mitigate the spread of Covid cases inside the jail, his attorney Jamie Paulen argued Tuesday afternoon.
Cassette was on trial in Alamance County superior court to appeal his earlier conviction in district court for resisting an officer, one of three charges he was arrested on last September. He was found not guilty of two other misdemeanor charges – second-degree trespassing and inciting a riot – at his first trial in district court on March 31, 2021.
During her opening statement Tuesday afternoon, Paulen asked members of the jury – comprised of eight women and five men, nine of whom were white, while two jurors were black and one was biracial – to think back to what was happening with Covid at the time. In September of last year, there were no vaccines, she recalled. “People were dying,” Paulen recalled in her opening statement to the jury. “People inside the Alamance County jail were getting sick – people who had no control, no ability to social distance were getting sick.”
“All the defendant had to do was cross a parking lot,” Alamance County assistant district attorney Kevin Harrison told the jury in his opening statement Tuesday afternoon.
The protesters initially gathered in the parking lot in front of the sheriff’s office that morning, Harrison said during his opening statement in superior court. Most complied when they were told to move to a sidewalk that, along with a row of trees and a strip of grass, separates South Maple Street from the parking lot at the front entrance to the sheriff’s office; Cassette had not, the assistant D.A. contended.
Video introduced at both trials depicted Cassette as he stood – alone and apart from the other members of his group – on a different sidewalk that leads to the entrance into the sheriff’s office.
Harrison, the prosecutor, argued that Cassette “made a decision to go where he wanted to go,” including walking through a group of deputies who were simply trying to get the situation under control.
His attorney, Paulen, contended that, given the spread of Covid-19 that had been reported at the time, Cassette “kept a pretty big distance between himself” and the other members of the group because “he was concerned that being bunched up with other people was a danger to him.”
The protesters had carried 99 black balloons that day, which they said at the time had been intended to symbolize the 99 cases that had been confirmed among the jail’s employees and inmate population as of August 31, 2020, based on their descriptions at the time and testimony during the district court trial this spring.
“You will see those people followed those instructions,” Harrison said during Cassette’s hour-long trial in superior court Tuesday afternoon. “The defendant walked away, all the way in front of the sheriff’s office, to deliver his message. Inmates who were right above this area already had become agitated.”
At his earlier trial in district court, Cassette testified that he’d believed he was complying with the instruction he was given but it was only after he was taken to the ground and handcuffed by sheriff’s deputies that he realized he hadn’t gone to the correct sidewalk, he testified at his trial in March.
Harrison called just two witnesses – sheriff’s Lt. Mark Dockery and deputy S.W. Adams – to testify at Cassette’s second trial in superior court Tuesday afternoon. The assistant D.A. also introduced short video recordings captured by cameras mounted above the front entrance into the sheriff’s office and on a front corner of the building.
Dockery testified that he had been walking toward the parking lot from an alleyway that runs behind the county office building but hadn’t been close enough to see what went on or to hear what was said during the protest on September 8 of last year.
Adams testified that he had used his arms to direct Cassette where to go but couldn’t remember exactly what instructions were given
For his part, Adams testified that the sheriff’s deputies felt they needed to keep all of the protesters together in one place to keep them from interfering with business being conducted at the sheriff’s office or obstructing vehicles coming in and out of the parking lot.
Paulen successfully argued that the evidence did not match the crime with which her client had been charged. The arrest warrant stated that Cassette had refused to leave the parking lot at the front of the sheriff’s office at 109 South Maple Street, she pointed out to Kevin Bridges, a visiting senior resident superior court judge from Stanly County who presided over Cassette’s trial at the Alamance County Historic Court House Tuesday afternoon.
At the close of evidence, Bridges granted Paulen’s request to dismiss the case for lack of sufficient evidence to prove Cassette had committed the crime of resisting, delaying, or obstructing a public officer. “He wasn’t meandering,” the visiting judge concluded. “He’s clearly walking a straight line.”
The case never went to the jury for deliberations.
Tuesday’s trial in superior court followed a decision by Bridges to declare a mistrial the previous day, Monday afternoon – after an entirely different jury had been seated – because the sole alternate juror had reported around 1:00 p.m. that her daughter had tested positive for Covid. Bridges announced that, out of an abundance of caution, he was declaring a mistrial since the alternate had come into contact with members of the jury, bailiffs, and other court staff earlier in the day.
The prosecution and defense selected new jurors in the case Tuesday morning.
Bridges told Cassette he was free to go around 3:15 p.m. Tuesday and excused members of the jury moments later.
Mistrial declared after first seating of jurors (on Monday) when one said she may have been exposed to Covid: https://alamancenews.com/mistrial-declared-mon-in-blm-protesters-appeal-due-to-jurors-possible-exposure-to-covid/