Wednesday, April 17, 2024

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One out-of-town protest defendant enters Alford plea at trial

One defendant – who was among a total of 23 people arrested during the march and rally in downtown Graham that ended with pepper spray on October 31, 2020 – entered an Alford plea to a charge of resisting a public officer at his trial in district court Wednesday afternoon.

David Eli Baghdad

David Eli Baghdadi, 44, white, male, of 780 Rabbit Den Road, Hot Springs (in Madison County), was charged with misdemeanor resisting a public officer on Halloween day for allegedly interfering with the arrest of another protester outside the Alamance County jail on Halloween day, according to his court file.

Baghdadi had originally planned to plead guilty as part of a plea arrangement, Graham attorney Kelly Fairman said at the outset of his trial in Alamance County district court Wednesday afternoon.

While some of the 2020 protest trials have consumed the better part of a full day, Baghdadi’s trial was notably brief: no evidence was introduced, and no witnesses were called to testify, though there was a nearly hour-long delay after the defendant disputed the facts of the underlying charge and took some time to consider the potential implications of voluntarily pleading guilty.

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Baghdadi’s case was ultimately resolved in less than 20 minutes Wednesday afternoon, excluding time spent conferring with his attorney and some back-hallway discussion between Fairman and Kevin Harrison, the Alamance County assistant district attorney assigned to prosecute the 2020 protest cases.

Baghdadi confirmed to retired visiting district court judge Lunsford Long, III of Orange County that, as he understood it, he would receive a prayer for judgment continued (PJC) in exchange for voluntarily pleading guilty. A PJC in essence means that the judgment won’t appear on his record, providing he has no subsequent charges or convictions for similar offenses.

However, Baghdadi subsequently hesitated on following through with the plea arrangement when Harrison recounted the factual basis for the charge for the judge Wednesday afternoon. An Alamance County sheriff’s deputy had been doing “crowd control” at the jail that afternoon, when Baghdadi intervened, based on Harrison’s description to the judge.

Fairman interjected, telling the judge that her client didn’t agree with that account of the circumstances leading to his October 31 arrest. “[He] saw someone getting arrested and didn’t feel what was going on was quite right,” the defense attorney said of her client’s reaction that afternoon.

Baghdadi allegedly attempted to stop officers from arresting Faith Cook of Graham, according to an order that an Alamance County magistrate issued, charging Baghdadi with resisting a public officer.

Cook, 42, black, female, of 330 West Market Street, Graham, was charged with misdemeanor riot during a protest outside the jail on October 31. Cook allegedly assembled with two or more persons and created a public disturbance that “by disorderly conduct or the imminent threat of disorderly and violent conduct, created a clear and present danger of injury or damage to persons or property,” according to the Alamance County magistrate’s order on which she was arrested.

(Story continues below.)

Other protest-related coverage in this week’s edition:

Carrboro woman charged with trespassing after carrying protest into Soda Shop:

Three “regular” protesters arrested (again), two for trying to deface new monument fence:

Baghdadi told the judge Wednesday afternoon that he had been trying to get Cook’s attention so he could give her a phone number for bail support. “I’m not angry,” he assured Long. “I was not trying to interfere with the arrest; I was not trying to interfere with the officer. I put my hand on her [Cook’s] back and said, ‘hey, are you okay,’ and the officer was not happy with that.”

Though Fairman pointed out that her client had been “driving back and forth” from the North Carolina mountains for previously-scheduled trial dates, which were postponed, she also asked for a brief recess to discuss the plea in greater depth with Baghdadi.

“I’m not trying to push him into anything,” Fairman said of her client, upon resuming the trial after a nearly 40-minute break during which she and Harrison reviewed a video that apparently depicted the circumstances surrounding Baghdadi’s arrest. “That was more than a test motion, if anything,” the defense attorney responded, when Long asked whether her client intended to withdraw his guilty plea.

Fairman went back-and-forth for a few minutes – at one point, she floated the idea of motioning to continue the case – before announcing that her client would enter an Alford plea. A defendant who enters an Alford plea does not admit guilt but acknowledges that the evidence is sufficient to get a conviction.

Long accepted the plea and entered a PJC, ordering Baghdadi to pay a fine and court costs.
Seemingly grateful to have the matter resolved, Baghdadi responded, “Water under the bridge.”

“Thank you sir,” Fairman told Long at the conclusion of the trial. “I very much appreciate your patience. We wanted to make sure everything was on the up and up.”

Trials for 12 cases involving nine protesters – three of whom have multiple cases – were scheduled in Alamance County district court on Wednesday. The trials were originally scheduled to begin at 9:00 a.m. but were postponed until 2:30 p.m. Wednesday. The delay was apparently at the behest of Greensboro defense attorney Jason Keith, who had four clients scheduled for trial Wednesday but was unavailable, according to courthouse staff at the J.B. Allen, Jr. Court House.

The 11 other cases that had been set for trial Wednesday will be rescheduled, but the new court dates were not available by press time.

Following the disposition of Baghdadi’s case Wednesday afternoon, trials remained pending for 14 of the 23 people who were arrested during the march and rally in downtown Graham on October 31, based on court documents. About half of the cases for 56 defendants charged at protests in downtown Graham in 2020 remain pending in Alamance County criminal court.

Meanwhile, six arrests have been made during the latest protests staged in downtown Graham between April 27 and May 5, based on Alamance County court documents (see related story, this edition).

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