Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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Mistrial declared Mon. in BLM protester’s appeal due to juror’s possible exposure to Covid

A visiting senior resident superior court judge declared a mistrial Monday afternoon in Alamance County superior court in the appeal for a Black Lives Matter protester who was convicted earlier this year in district court of resisting an officer outside the Alamance County jail on September 8, 2020.

Meanwhile, the trial was to begin again on Tuesday morning, with a new selection process for jurors prior to beginning the case itself.

Kevin Bridges, senior resident superior court judge for Stanly and Montgomery counties, declared a mistrial shortly after 2:00 p.m. Monday, after being informed that the sole alternate juror – seated just before the lunch break – learned around 1:00 p.m. that her daughter, who lives with her in Mebane, had tested positive for Covid.

The trial in Alamance County superior court is for Nicholas Lloyd Cassette, black, male, 35, of 5892 Church Road in Graham, who is appealing his earlier conviction of misdemeanor resisting a public officer.  He was originally charged with three misdemeanors – resisting a public officer; second-degree trespass; and inciting a riot – during the protest outside the jail in September 2020.  His other charges were dismissed at his trial in district court on March 31, 2021.

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Nicholas Lloyd Cassette

Each of the 12 jurors and the one alternate who were selected for his appeal had been directed to numbered seats that were marked off in the rows – most of which were designated for no more than two jurors each – in the court gallery in the second-floor courtroom at the Historic Court House.  All other seats were marked with a red X and labeled, warning not to sit in the seat.

A handful of prospective alternate jurors were seated in the third-floor balcony, each filing dutifully down to the courtroom gallery as their names were called and exiting the courtroom once they were eliminated from the jury pool.

Bridges declared a mistrial shortly after 2:00 pm., which he said was out of an abundance of caution because the alternate juror had come into contact with other jurors, courtroom bailiffs and other court staff, before and during jury orientation, as well as during jury selection.  He urged the 12 jurors to get tested for Covid if they become symptomatic.

While he said he recognized the importance of the trial, Bridges said, “It’s impossible for this trial to go forward at this time.”

Meanwhile, Bridges subsequently announced that court will reconvene at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday to begin the selection process for 12 new jurors and alternates.

The alternate juror initially selected for Cassette’s trial was a white female who has worked as a nurse for 29 years and at Duke Health for the last four years, she said during questioning by the prosecution and defense attorney earlier Monday morning.

Four prospective jurors and two alternates had been excused by lunchtime on Monday afternoon.

Bridges excused a white male and an Hispanic male who said they had health-related concerns which would make it difficult to serve.  The visiting superior court judge also excused a black female prospective juror who said she didn’t have anyone to look after her six-month-old child during the trial.

The visiting judge granted a request by the defense to excuse two white females, including one designated as a potential alternate, who revealed during questioning that each has a parent employed in law enforcement in Alamance County.

Bridges also granted another request by the defense to excuse an Alamance County detention officer from serving as alternate.  The Alamance County detention officer, a white male, said that an Alamance County sheriff’s detective who’s scheduled to testify in the case had “been involved with [his] hiring” in the fall of 2020, though he said he’d been in training for his position when the protest was held outside the jail in September of last year.


Case background

That demonstration ultimately became one of nearly five dozen protests that were held in downtown Graham during the second half of last year, following the May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd by a then-police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota – Derek Chauvin, who was convicted earlier this year of multiple charges in Floyd’s killing.

During his trial in district court this spring, Cassette testified that the protest initially began outside the county office building at 124 West Elm Street, where the county commissioners were holding their semi-monthly meeting inside.  Cassette said he and other members of his group marched to the jail – where 93 inmates and six staff members had tested positive for the virus as of August 31, 2020 – and carried 99 black balloons to symbolize each of the cases of Covid that had been confirmed at the jail.

Photo of Nicolas Cassette, shortly before his arrest on September 8, 2020. Photo credit: Anthony Crider

While other members of his group complied when they were directed to move to a sidewalk that separates South Maple Street and a parking lot at the front of the sheriff’s office, Cassette had not, based on video recorded during the protest and testimony given by several Alamance County’s sheriff’s deputies at his trial in district court.

Cassette testified at his district court trial earlier this year that he had been trying to observe the six-foot social distancing guidelines for Covid and said he was unsure where he needed to go on the sidewalk, which follows the perimeter of the parking lot in front of the sheriff’s office and leads directly into the entrance that faces South Maple Street.  Videos and testimony introduced at his trial in district court established that Cassette had been standing on the sidewalk, near the double-doors leading into the lobby at the sheriff’s office.  He captured the attention of deputies’ when the inmates in the cell blocks overlooking the parking lot started banging on the windows loudly.

Retired visiting district court judge Lunsford Long, III of Orange County, who presided over most of the 2020 protest trials in Alamance County district court earlier this year, dismissed the riot charge, concluding that Cassette’s conduct hadn’t fit the statute; and dismissed the trespassing charge, saying he didn’t think the evidence would withstand scrutiny.

Two other people were also arrested during the protest at the jail on September 8, 2020.

Magdalene Tucker Blunk, 29, white female, of 227 Flemington Road in Chapel Hill, was convicted of misdemeanor disorderly conduct and resisting a public officer at her trial in district court in early March of this year.  Blunk was given a prayer for judgment continued and ordered to pay a fine.

Cassette’s wife, Katherine Baxter Cassette, 38, white female, also of 5982 Church Road, Graham, was also charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct during the protest outside the jail on September 8, 2020.  That case was dismissed on December 21, 2020, according to her court file, which listed the reason for dismissal as the “charged conduct does not constitute a crime.”

However, Katherine Cassette is currently charged with misdemeanor defacing/injuring a public statue or monument on May 5, 2020, for allegedly attaching crime scene tape to fencing that surrounds the Confederate monument at the north entrance to the Alamance County Historic Court House.  That case remains pending in Alamance County district court.

Jury selection in the trial for Nicholas Cassette is currently scheduled to begin again in Alamance County superior court on Tuesday morning.

Alamance County assistant district attorney Kevin Harrison is prosecuting the case.  Nicholas Cassette is being represented by attorney Jamie Paulen, who also represented him for his trial in Alamance County district court.

Alamance County district attorney Sean Boone said later in an interview with The Alamance News that he could recall one other trial in which a judge had declared a mistrial due to possible Covid exposure since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020.

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