Police and sheriff's deputies had no right to try to break up a boisterous protest outside a Durham school board meeting in April, a judge ruled Monday. He cleared two people of misdemeanor charges stemming from the incident.
Carol Walthour, a 64-year-old grandmother, was acquitted of assault on a government official, disorderly conduct and failure to disperse on command. Curtis Gatewood, 46, a Baptist minister, was acquitted of resisting, delaying or obstructing a public officer. The defendants said the charges were an assault on their free speech rights.
"The Constitution of the United States was on trial. Freedom of speech was on trial," Gatewood said after the judge's verdict. "Justice had a victory today."
The case again brought into the criminal courts a long-running feud between a vocal group of parents and the school district's leadership. The trials were the second and third arising from a contentious school board meeting last spring at which audience members protested a board policy restricting public comment to items on the agenda.
Earlier this month, the same judge, David Q. LaBarre, found Steven Matherly not guilty of trespass and disorderly conduct charges for his role in the contentious meeting.
Matherly was charged after he plopped onto the floor to protest the board's public comment policy. As he was led from the board meeting, a group of parents followed. Carrying signs and chanting protest rhymes, the group assembled in the parking lot outside the school board building, according to testimony from Monday's trials.
Police officers decided that the chanting, which included some profanity, was loud and disruptive to the school board meeting, which continued upstairs in the building. By then, Gatewood and Walthour were in the crowd. Gatewood helped quiet the group of 20 so that officers could read the statutes regarding disorderly conduct and dispersing a crowd. No one moved.
At some point, Durham police Detective Vincent Bynum testified, Walthour stepped forward, cursed and said she would not leave. The detective said he had another officer arrest her. Walthour testified that she was peacefully protesting when she felt someone grab her roughly from behind. She jerked away because she did not know what was happening, she said. Walthour denied the police claims that she swung around and hit officer B.L. Parrish in the chest.
Walthour, who has arthritis, testified that her shoulders were injured during the arrest and that she felt humiliated and traumatized by the experience.
Officers testified that Gatewood came forward and told the officers that Walthour was an elderly woman with medical conditions and they needed to be careful with her. Bynum testified that Gatewood was interfering with Parrish's arrest of Walthour.
The decisions to arrest both people came after police decided that they were not comfortable with the volume of the protesters, defense attorneys said. Gatewood and Walthour, they said, had the right to resist that unlawful arrest.
"They can stand on that street corner and yell their lungs out," Gatewood's attorney, Scott Holmes said. "They did not have to bow down to the abuse of power in their midst."
Staff writer Benjamin Niolet can be reached at 956-2404 or firstname.lastname@example.org.