RALEIGH — After presiding over the first three trials of “Moral Monday” protesters, the judge who heard the cases left a mixed message.
Judge Joy Hamilton, a former Wake County district judge who was appointed by the state to preside over some 920 cases, found the first protester guilty on Oct. 4 of all three charges – second-degree trespass, failure to disperse and violating N.C. Legislative Building rules. Saladin Muhammad of Rocky Mount has appealed his case to Wake County Superior Court.
On Friday, with different defense attorneys making arguments, Hamilton dismissed the same charges against Douglass Ryder, 66, and Vicki Ryder, 71, the Durham-based husband and wife among the dozens arrested on May 6.
Hamilton did not offer her grounds for dismissing the charges at the Friday hearing, leaving a legal quandary for the assistant district attorney assigned to prosecute the hundreds of cases yet to be heard and the defense attorneys whose clients have not had their day in court.
Daryl Atkinson, a staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, represents a protester who was arrested during the May 13 demonstration and has not been to trial yet. After observing Friday’s hearing, he said he was glad to see the judge weigh the cases based on the evidence and arguments from that day.
“Each client and each case is going to be judged on their individual merits,” Atkinson said.
The Ryders, who were tried together on Friday, each took the stand and elaborated on why they were part of the demonstration in early May.
Douglass Ryder, a Vietnam veteran who moved to North Carolina almost two years ago with his wife, said he joined the demonstrators May 6 because he was concerned about new policies and laws adopted by the Republican-led General Assembly.
“I just have a long list of concerns about veterans issues,” Ryder, a member of Veterans for Peace, told the judge.
Among them were the cuts to unemployment benefits and Medicaid and the negative impact they would have on veterans fighting homelessness, suicidal thoughts, traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress.
“I went to bring voice to the voiceless,” Ryder said, batting back the prosecution’s assertions that he went inside the Legislative Building that Monday evening with the intention of being arrested.
Vicki Ryder, a grandmother, also disputed contentions that she went to the demonstration with a goal of being arrested. Her list of concerns was as long as her husband’s. Among them were her worries that new laws and policies would restrict access “to the voting booth,” to health care, to public schools and loosen environmental protections.
“My intent was absolutely not to be arrested,” Vicki Ryder testified. “I went to petition my legislators. I went to exercise my right of free speech.”
The May 6 demonstration was one in which demonstrators gathered late in the afternoon along the Bicentennial Mall across the street from the Legislative Building. They made speeches, hoisted signs and walked slowly into the building where neither the Senate nor the House of Representatives had started their sessions.
Scott Holmes, the Durham-based attorney who worked with Hillsborough attorney David Neal on the defense of the Ryders, made a multipronged argument for dismissal of all charges.
Jeff Weaver, chief of the General Assembly police force that made the arrests, testified Friday that he did not consider any of the protesters inside the building to be violent. Many of the demonstrators, who refused to leave on his order to disperse, prayed and sang.
Weaver, Holmes pointed out, even let one demonstrator finish his prayer before being arrested and then gave him what the attorney described as “a man hug.”
Holmes also pointed out that many other people who remained in the Legislative Building after the chief gave his warnings on a bullhorn continued singing and clapping as the arrests were taking place, but those people were not arrested.
Holmes argued that the chief was arbitrarily arresting people who were engaging in “peaceful political speech” protected under the U.S. Constitution.
He said the order for dispersal was unconstitutional because there was no evidence that the protesters “were engaging in or about to engage in violent disorderly conduct.”
Additionally, Holmes contended that the legislative rules used for the basis of arrest were “unconstitutionally vague and over broad.”
The chief, he pointed out, sought elaboration from legal counsel after the May 6 demonstration for guidance on how to enforce them during other protests that continued through the summer.
And, in a point that was disputed by prosecutor Mary Elizabeth Wilson, Holmes argued that the rules were not properly posted or easily available for any visitor to the state building.
Hamilton dismissed the trespassing charges and failure to disperse charges at the close of the state’s case. She waited until after the defense put on its evidence to dismiss the charges accusing the Ryders of violating building rules.
The Ryders praised the judge’s decisions after the daylong hearing and advocated for dismissals of the pending cases.
“We have shown that we can express or concerns and not be arrested for doing that,” Vicki Ryder said. “There’s always a possibility of getting unjustly arrested, and we are prepared for that, but that does not mean that’s our intent.”