Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Trials for 2020 protesters begin

First Halloween Day protester from march & rally found guilty of failure to disperse

Trials began Wednesday morning in Alamance County criminal district court for the first of more than two dozen defendants who were arrested during a series of racial justice protests that unfolded in downtown Graham last summer and fall, in the wake of the May 25 killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

A total of 11 cases had been listed on the docket for Wednesday; four were heard; and three were carried over to a future court session. The other four cases on Wednesday’s docket were scheduled as “advisals,” to determine whether they had hired an attorney or wished to have one appointed for their defense, according to Alamance County assistant district attorney Kevin Harrison, who has been assigned to prosecute all of the protest-related cases.

The first defendant – Dionne Liles, who owns a consignment shop in Court Square – represented herself in court this week for three charges stemming from a protest outside the county jail on September 8, 2020.

Liles, 39, black female, whose business address, 12 Northeast Court Square in Graham, is listed on her arrest warrant, had been charged with assaulting a government official/employee, after she allegedly struck a sheriff’s deputy on the head with a cardboard sign. She was also charged with misdemeanor second-degree trespassing and resisting a police officer, according to her court file.

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The September 8 protest initially began outside the county office building along West Elm Street, shortly before Alamance County’s commissioners were to hold their semi-monthly meeting. Liles had been among a smaller group of between 20 and 30 people who later moved to the parking lot in front of the county jail.

Earlier in the morning of September 8, 2020, Dionne Liles is shown here, outside the county commissioner meeting room, with her sign opposing sheriff Terry Johnson. Later, she would go to a nearby parking lot to continue her protest against the sheriff. Liles was found guilty this week of misdemeanor resisting a public officer and second-degree trespassing but not guilty of assaulting a public officer.
Liles during an earlier demonstration, on August 3, 2020, also outside the county office building where the county commissioners were meeting in a second floor chambers.

Dressed in black jeans and a short-sleeve black tee-shirt, Liles entered a plea of not guilty on all three charges Wednesday morning, telling retired visiting district court judge William Lunsford (“Lunsford”) Long, III, that she did not assault an officer and believed she had a right to be in the jail parking lot at the time of her arrest. Long has agreed to preside over hearings for several dozen other defendants who were charged during protests in Graham last year, according to Alamance County court officials.

The jail parking lot, Liles argued for her defense, is public property and therefore a proper public forum in which to exercise her First Amendment rights. “I was there to amplify the voices for people who suffer from being targeted by police officers, who make mistakes. My intent was not malicious.” Instead, Liles insisted that she had been attempting to keep an eye on one of her fellow protesters, whom she described as a man of color who had been tackled to the ground by law enforcement moments earlier.

Alamance County sheriff’s deputy James Michael Giannotti testified Wednesday morning that Liles had positioned herself between two cars in the jail parking lot and was waving a sign that read, “Terry Johnson is a grim reaper” during the protest outside the jail and failed to heed his verbal commands.

Dionne Janiece Liles

Harrison countered that Liles had been “pushing the sign forward in an acute angle” when she struck Giannotti, after being asked “again and again” to leave the parking lot. Harrison pointed out that Giannotti had twice asked the protesters to leave the area, and the group had acknowledged the command and “came back onto the property,” which he said lent legitimacy to the trespassing charge. “She herself has acknowledged that she came back onto the property,” Harrison said of Liles, adding, “You can’t violate some other statute in the name of free speech.”

On assault charge: “I have no doubt [liles] did not intend to strike him.”

– judge william “lunsford” Long, III

Not that he isn’t from Alamance County and isn’t familiar with the area where the protest had occurred, Long took a brief recess to go see the nearby jail parking lot for himself and twice reviewed cell phone footage that Liles presented in court.

“I have no doubt she did not intend to strike him,” Long said in declaring Liles not guilty of assaulting an officer.

However, the question of where a law enforcement officer should draw the line, “after telling them to leave,” was more difficult, Long said before calling a brief recess to consider the two remaining charges in camera. Upon returning to the courtroom, Long concluded that “the public doesn’t have an unfettered right to be on public property when asked to leave,” finding Liles guilty of misdemeanor resisting a public officer and second-degree trespassing. He issued a prayer for judgment – meaning the conviction won’t appear on her court record, providing she has no subsequent charges or convictions for similar offenses – and ordered Liles to pay $183 in court costs but no fine.

Liles told Harrison earlier on Wednesday that she has hired an attorney, Elizabeth Haddix of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, to represent her in another case that was scheduled to be heard Wednesday. Harrison said that case, in which Liles was charged with misdemeanor failure to disperse on command on October 31 – would be carried over to a future court session.

Liles was among a total of 23 people who were arrested during the “I am Change Legacy” rally and march in downtown Graham on October 31 that ended with law enforcement using pepper spray to clear the roadway and the grounds of the county’s Historic Court House. Long is currently scheduled to hear most of those cases next month, including that of Alamance News reporter Tomas Murawski, who had been covering the march and rally when he was charged with resisting, delaying, or obstructing an officer.


D.A. dismisses charges against two protesters arrested for impeding traffic
Two other defendants who appeared in district court on Wednesday – both arrested during a protest in downtown Graham on September 26, 2020 and represented by attorney Jamie Paulen – had their charges dismissed.

Following a brief hearing at which an Alamance County sheriff’s deputy testified about the chain of events leading to the two arrests on September 26, Harrison announced that the state was dismissing a charge of impeding traffic against Andrew Wesley Crabtree, 27, white male, of 7 Hilton Place, Apartment F, in Greensboro. He had been charged with impeding traffic by sitting/standing/lying in the roadway, which state law classifies as a traffic infraction.

Andrew Wesley Crabtree

Harrison also dismissed a charge against Morgan Ellen Carter, 26, white female, of 916 Lexington Avenue in Greensboro, who was also charged with impeding traffic during the September 26 protest in Court Square. Carter’s case was dismissed without any arguments by the assistant D.A. or her defense attorney, or any testimony from the sheriff’s deputy who had testified in Crabtree’s case Wednesday morning.

Morgan Ellen Carter


First of October 31 protesters charged with failure to disperse found guilty

Long found Regis Kishon (“Shon”), 28, black male, of 4600 University Drive, Apartment 302, Durham, guilty of a single count of misdemeanor failure to disperse on command, for failing to leave the grounds of the Historic Court House on October 31, after being given three verbal warnings to leave the premises, based on the arrest warrant.

Regis Kishon “Shon” Green

On cross-examination, Green’s attorney Paulen repeatedly questioned four Alamance County sheriff’s deputies about whether the October 31 march and rally had been peaceful up to the point when the “dispersal order” was given and pepper spray was deployed.

Deputy Daniel Nichols testified that while working the event, it was confirmed that a running gas generator had been located and identified as a potential hazard; a dispute had erupted when another deputy attempted to confiscate it before she was pushed to the ground; and the first of three separate dispersal orders was given for the crowd of what he estimated had been 150 to 200 people to vacate the north side of the Historic Court House.  “It was a highly-volatile, rapidly-evolving situation,” Nichols recalled Wednesday.  “That’s when the fogger was deployed,” he said, characterizing the pepper spray as an “irritant” that was initially sprayed at protesters’ feet to keep them back.  “They continued to move forward at us,” Nichols testified.

Earlier, during the march to the courthouse, Green was on a bullhorn, leading songs and chants of the marchers.
During an October 31, 2020 march and rally in Graham, Regis Kishon “Shon” Green was one of the marchers who led some of the chants and songs during the procession (above top) and later was at the rally (shown immediately above). When he and others did not disperse after sheriff’s deputies declared the rally over – when they found a gas-powered generator and two gas cans on courthouse grounds in violation of the organizer’s permit – they were arrested and charged with failure to disperse. Green’s is the first arrest from that group of cases to be heard in district court this week. He was found guilty. Other charges against him from another protest remain pending.

After reviewing the arrest warrant issued for Green on October 31, Paulen asked Long to dismiss the charge against Green, arguing that the “charging document indicates he failed to vacate the premises after violating the permitting process”; that the permitting process had already been declared unconstitutional by U.S. District Court judge Catherine Eagles (in an earlier federal lawsuit filed against the city of Graham and Alamance County); and that her client had not been involved in the permitting process.

Long ultimately denied Paulen’s motion to dismiss – which she requested and Long denied earlier in the hearing – on the grounds that the state had failed to meet its burden to prove her client was guilty.

The organizer for the event, Rev. Gregory Drumwright of Greensboro, had obtained a permit on October 20 to use the courthouse grounds for his march and rally on October 31.

The terms of the facilities use permit for the courthouse grounds, which the Alamance County sheriff’s office granted the same day Drumwright applied for it, stated that sound amplification equipment “must be battery powered” and that electrical generators are prohibited on the Historic Court House property, major David Sykes of the Alamance County sheriff’s office testified Wednesday.  Sykes testified, when Paulen asked whether he was aware of the federal litigation related to the permitting process, that the facilities use permit had been crafted by the county.

The city of Graham had repealed a city ordinance requiring a permit for any parade or demonstration involving two or more people in response to a lawsuit filed by the Alamance County NAACP in July 2020.

Clifton Carter, who testified for Green’s defense, recalled Wednesday that he had been “right beside” Green, standing on a stage that Drumwright erected on the Court House grounds before what he described as a “mostly peaceful” event devolved into “total mayhem,” which he estimated had been about 20 to 25 minutes after speakers began addressing the crowd.

The order given by Alamance County sheriff’s deputy Pete Triolo had registered because Triolo’s “gravelly voice” was very similar to a gunnery sergeant he had served with during his 30 years in the military.

After Paulen asked Carter what had caused the mayhem – to which Harrison raised an objection that the judge sustained – the retired U.S. Navy corpsman recalled, “I do know loud voices and spraying of the irritant had happened at that time; then the crowd became very, very agitated.”

Carter described the sheriff’s deputies forming what he termed a “phalanx,” or a troop line, hearing the gravelly voice, and smelling the irritant – the latter two which he testified “were probably simultaneous” – at which point, he said, “it was obvious we were being asked to leave.”

Carter also testified that people who were still on the stage were confused about why they were being denied their First Amendment rights to speak that afternoon.  “I would say volume doesn’t necessarily create communication,” Carter testified of the initial dispersal order.  “Skirmish management is not initiated with force; skirmish management is initiated at the lowest level possible,” he said, noting earlier during his testimony that had a lot of experience with “situations very similar to what we’re discussing” while serving in the military.

Carter also testified that Drumwright had asked him to attend the event, as something of a “security element” for the organizer, but he did not know the gas generator was not allowed under the facilities use permit; nor did he see a gas generator.  Without knowing those things, it was reasonable to assume that the protesters were legally permitted to be on the premises, Carter summarized.

The county developed the facilities use permit after Eagles entered an order in August 2020 prohibiting any indefinite ban on protests on the Court House Grounds.  Eagles had also acknowledged in her order that the county may need to place “reasonable restrictions” on the time, place, and manner of demonstrations on the Court House grounds.

on failure to disperse: “I think fair warning was given, and he stayed.”

– Judge William “Lunsford” Long, III

That sidebar argument about the federal litigation appeared to carry little weight with Long.  After hearing from the four sheriff’s deputies and Carter, the judge told Paulen he was finding her client guilty. “I think fair warning was given, and he stayed,” Long told the attorney.

Long announced Wednesday that he will delay sentencing for the conviction of misdemeanor failure to disperse until he can hear the evidence in another case against Green.

Green was subsequently charged on November 16 with misdemeanor resisting a public officer; misdemeanor disorderly conduct in a public building; and disrupting an official meeting of the Alamance County commissioners while it was underway inside the courtroom upstairs at the Historic Court House, according to the other warrant against Green.

See separate coverage of case decided last week in which Green was allegedly assaulted, although use of his bullhorn in contention.  https://alamancenews.com/assault-charge-dismissed-against-businessman-who-was-arrested-while-dining-in-downtown-graham-during-blm-protest/


Hearings in seven other cases to be rescheduled

 Long was originally scheduled to hold hearings in several other protest-related cases, including two for defendants who had been present in the courtroom throughout the day.  Those cases will be carried over until next month, Harrison confirmed for The Alamance News after court adjourned Wednesday afternoon.

Long had served as a district court judge in Orange and Orange and Chatham counties until 2016.

The retired visiting judge had previously presided in Orange County court over several cases that had stemmed from ongoing protests and counter-protests over the presence of the Silent Sam Confederate statue at McCorkle Place on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill that ultimately resulted in the statue’s toppling in August 2018.

In early 2019, Long acquitted two of the defendants but convicted one of assaulting an officer, sentencing her to 24 hours in the Orange County jail, according to news reports that ran at the time.  The Orange County district attorney’s office agreed to defer prosecution for two other defendants, on the condition that they complete community service and pay court fines.

None of the defendants whose cases were heard this week had any prior criminal convictions, according to the state Department of Corrections.

The other protest-related cases currently scheduled to be heard in Alamance County criminal district court throughout March and in early April, the Alamance County district attorney’s office has confirmed for The Alamance News.

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