Two black male defendants who were arrested during protests in downtown Graham last year were found guilty at their trials in Alamance County district court this week.
At the close of his trial Wednesday afternoon, Nicholas Lloyd Cassette, 35, black male, of 5982 Church Road in Graham, was found guilty of one of three misdemeanor offenses with which he was charged during a protest outside the Alamance County sheriff’s department on September 8, 2020. Cassette was found guilty of resisting an officer – for not going to the proper sidewalk where he and the other protesters had been directed. He was found not guilty of inciting a riot and second-degree trespassing.
Cassette later testified that the protest had been intended to draw attention to rising cases of Covid at the Alamance County jail. The group initially began their protest outside the county office building at 124 West Elm Street, prior to the county commissioners’ semi-monthly meeting, and marched to the sheriff’s office to demonstrate, in hopes of bringing awareness to rising cases of Covid at the jail, Cassette testified Wednesday afternoon. On August 31, the county confirmed that six staff members and 93 inmates had tested positive for the virus.
Cassette had been trailing the rest of the group – which the defendant testified was because he wanted to maintain social distancing – and was alone when he stopped in front of the double-doors at the entrance to the sheriff’s office. Almost immediately, sheriff’s deputies instructed him to move to the sidewalk along South Maple Street, which runs parallel with the parking lot at the front of the sheriff’s office, Alamance County assistant D.A. Kevin Harrison described Wednesday.
Video and testimony given Wednesday established that Cassette had been standing on the sidewalk immediately to the left of the double-doors leading into the sheriff’s office.
Cassette testified that he thought he was complying with the deputies’ instructions but said only seconds later – when he was taken to the ground and handcuffed – did he realize he wasn’t on the correct sidewalk, the one by the street.
Harrison, who has been assigned to handle the 2020 protest cases, argued that Cassette had “acted differently” than the other protesters by getting closer to the jail, where inmates heard the crowd chanting, “we love you, we hear you,” and started banging on the windows.
“I think the defendant is aware of that and continues his behavior,” the assistant D.A. contended, and the reaction from the inmates was “provoking clear and present danger.”
The banging was “fairly consistent throughout,” Alamance County sheriff’s Lt. Mark Dockery recalled on the witness stand Wednesday. “It was a very fluid situation – you’re talking a matter of seconds…There was a lot going on at the time. The crowd was engaging the inmates in the jail because the windows look directly onto the parking lot; they were banging on the windows.”
Alamance County sheriff’s deputy S.W. Adams testified that Cassette – dressed in black “skeleton” leggings, a black leotard, and a bowler hat – stood out that day, partly because of the hat he had been wearing and because he had been standing alone, while the other protesters went to where they were instructed. Adams recalled that he’d told Cassette twice to “go back to the sidewalk” and was trying to help another deputy escort him back to the sidewalk where the rest of his group had gathered. Adams acknowledged that he had tripped Cassette, by then flanked by Adams and another sheriff’s deputy, “so I could get control of him.” Within seconds, the crowd was shouting, “let him go, let him go” over and over again, Adams testified.
Retired visiting district court judge Lunsford Long, III of Orange County, who has agreed to preside over all of the 2020 protest trials in Alamance County district court, said that in order to prove the incitement charge, the conduct “has to be intended to and plainly likely” to incite a riot.
“He didn’t intend to get arrested; I don’t see what he did fits the statute,” Long said in dismissing the misdemeanor riot charge against Cassette. “I don’t think the trespass charge is going to withstand scrutiny.”
Cassette’s defense attorney, Jamie Paulen of Paulen Solidarity Law, argued that case law has established that the premises of a public building presumed to be open to the public, under “implied consent,” unless the evidence shows that consent was revoked. “Mr. Cassette had a right to have those expectations,” that he was allowed to be on the property, unless instructions were clearly given and he was given an opportunity to leave, she asserted.
Harrison countered that “public property is not just wide open and limitless in terms of what can take place on the property.” There were many other people in his group “who complied and were not arrested,” the assistant D.A. said.
Long nonetheless found Cassette not guilty of the trespass charge.
Elon University professor Anthony Crider gave extensive testimony Wednesday afternoon about the methodology he used – merging his own photographs with two videos he was provided to create something resembling a movie – to establish the timeline. He ultimately pinpointed that it had taken the group 60 seconds to march from the county office building at 124 West Elm Street, to the intersection of Pine Street with South Maple Street, then cross over and follow the sidewalk to the sheriff’s office at 109 South Maple Street.
On cross-examination, Crider acknowledged he had met with Cassette to recreate the scene to pinpoint the 60 seconds it had taken to march from the county office building to the sheriff’s office, and the 15 to 20 seconds that elapsed prior to his arrest.
Tommy Noonan of Saxapahaw testified Wednesday afternoon that he had participated in the protest on September 8 and observed the chain of events leading to Cassette’s arrest. “His body language showed he was clearly trying to exit this area,” Noonan testified, adding that the group was “not at all, not at all” aware that there would be any problem with them being in the parking lot at the sheriff’s office.
The time between when Cassette was asked to leave and when he was arrested was “probably less than 20 seconds,” Paulen told the judge. “You heard Mr. Cassette testify he was being given conflicting directions.” A December 2020 ruling by the state Court of Appeals further established that “the state must introduce sufficient evidence that the defendant acted deliberately in violation of the law” to prove criminal intent, she added. “He thought he was standing in the right place; when he became aware he was not, he started to move. And at all points, he thought he was complying with their instruction. The direction law enforcement gave was ‘get on the sidewalk; Mr. Cassette was on the sidewalk.” Her client, Paulen argued, chose the path where he thought he would encounter fewer people so he could maintain social distancing. “You are talking about a very small-angle degree,” she noted. “Law enforcement confirmed he was not under arrest until he was on the ground.”
Harrison, however, prevailed in arguing that the deputies had extended their arms in the direction that Cassette was supposed to be going, “which they are allowed to do for crowd control purposes.”
“There’s no evidence Mr. Cassette was aware that this officer had extended his arms,” Paulen insisted. There were a lot of people; there was a lot of shouting; and the two deputies were pushing and pulling Cassette in opposite directions just before they took him to the ground.
Long found Cassette guilty of resisting an officer, noting, “He’s not a criminal.”
Cassette has no prior criminal record, according to the Alamance County courts system and the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
Long offered to enter a prayer for judgment and $50 fine, plus court costs, which Paulen rejected, announcing that her client intends to appeal.
Defense attorney assails victim’s character in trying to prove his client’s innocence
On Wednesday morning, Devin Lee Vaughn, 36, of 923 Turrentine Street in Burlington, was found guilty of an assault at a protest in Graham on Friday, September 4, 2020. [Editor’s Note: no mug shot was available.] The victim in that case was listed as Steven Marley, based on a citation issued by Graham police. Marley testified at Vaughn’s trial Wednesday morning that he and his girlfriend, whom he identified as Laura Ray, had come to downtown Graham that night and observed a group of people gathered around a vehicle parked near Sesquicentenial Park, yelling at the woman inside.
Marley said he began recording the incident with his cell phone when Vaughn and several other protesters jumped on him.
“Other people that were part of the Black Lives Matter group were trying to restrain [Vaughn],” the arresting officer, C.D. Dunnagan of the Graham police department testified. “He actually pushed past me” to get to the corner where Marley had been standing with two other Graham police officers, Dunnagan recalled on the witness stand Wednesday.
“It was chaos everywhere, people on both sides were getting pushed down,” Dunnagan said, explaining how he eventually detained Vaughn in a nearby alleyway until the commotion died down.
Vaughn’s attorney, Patrick Morgan of Chapel Hill, argued that Vaughn had been attempting to protect a female protester, who Marley allegedly assaulted by trying to take a headlamp she was wearing that night. The female protester, Courtney Dempsey, subsequently testified that she had, in fact, tried to use the bright light on her headlamp to block Marley’s view of two 12-year-old black girls for whom the group had been holding a vigil, after a woman nearly ran them down as they walked from a nearby gas station, where they had gone to buy snacks, back home several days earlier.
Ann Humphreys later testified that she had encountered Marley on innumerable occasions at protests around Confederate monuments in central North Carolina and had observed him numerous times, behaving in “an aggressive manner.”
At one point, Marley was asked during cross-examination by the defense whether he had attended the January 6 protest at the U.S. Capitol; Long cut that line of questioning before he could answer.
Dempsey claimed that Marley had been there that night much longer than he admitted during his own testimony. “The taunting, it was for a while, so we were definitely drained at that point. Several weeks prior, we had that group to sing songs about trains – one of our group’s [family members] was hit by a train – make threats about hanging us when Trump was reelected,” Dempsey testified, before breaking down in tears. “[They were] saying things like the only black lives that matter are dead ones.” She said she had attempted to discuss this with one of the Graham police officers at the scene that night but was turned way.
Humphreys had recorded cell phone video of the events surrounding Vaughn’s arrest on September 4, which was presented during the trial. She testified Wednesday that Vaughn had repeatedly told Dunnagan that Marley had assaulted him and “put his hands on a woman.”
Dunnagan was unable to recall that detail during subsequent examination by Harrison.
The evidence showed that Marley had been there several hours, and that he has since been convicted of assaulting another woman the same night, Morgan asserted in contending that his client was acting in self-defense. “Mr. Vaughn is stepping in to defend Miss Dempsey,” he said.
“The victim is not on trial,” Harrison countered. “Punching him in the face is not reasonable.”
Long agreed that the evidence didn’t support the claim that Vaughn had been acting in self-defense. “I don’t think this was self-defense; it was retribution. He’s guilty of assault, and I find him guilty.” Long agreed to continue sentencing in that case until the arguments can be heard on another charge of disorderly conduct that Vaughn was cited for on September 26, 2020. That case has been rescheduled for May 19.