Editor's note: This story incorrectly reported the name of the former Wake County District Court judge who presided over dozens of cases of protesters arrested in 2013 while protesting at the N.C. Legislative Building. The judge's name is Joyce Hamilton, not Nancy Hamilton.
RALEIGH - One day after a Wake County district court judge acquitted five of the 57 demonstrators arrested during a May 20 protest at the N.C. Legislative Building, prosecutors announced that all cases pending from that Monday event would be dismissed.
The assistant district attorneys who tried the cases Tuesday announced the dismissals on Wednesday.
Prosecutors have been increasingly stymied in their efforts to win convictions because the crowds demonstrating against the Republican agenda during the spring and summer grew larger and larger, making it difficult to build narrow cases against individuals on trial.
During court hearings this week, Jeff Weaver, the chief of the General Assembly police force, could recall generalizations about the crowd gathered in the N.C. Legislative Building rotunda on May 20 but had difficulty remembering specific actions of the individuals arrested.
Police video from that night failed to capture the necessary details, and prosecutors had no other courtroom exhibits to jog the chiefs memory during the trials.
The General Assembly dealt with the protesters as a group; the court has to deal with their cases individually, explained Scott Holmes, a Durham defense lawyer and director of the N.C. Central University Civil Litigation Law Clinic. Both as a group and as individuals, they had a right to assemble and protest.
Since early October, when the first demonstrator from the so-called Moral Monday protests to be tried was convicted of three charges filed against him on May 13, ensuing trials have offered mixed verdicts.
26 of 945 convicted
Lawyers helping the state NAACP, the architect of the Monday rallies that brought growing crowds and national media attention, have been keeping score.
So far, they say, 26 of the 945 arrested have been convicted of at least one of the three charges lodged against all the protesters. After the hearings this week, 31 have been acquitted. Several dozen have taken plea deals, agreeing to perform community service and pay court fees in exchange for the charges against them being dropped.
The state, or the D.A.s office, is now batting well below .500, said Al McSurely, a Chapel Hill lawyer who represented the first protester to be convicted. We believe that the case against all the 945 people who were arrested is collapsing.
All the defendants convicted since October have appealed the Wake County district court verdicts to Superior Court. They plan to seek jury trials.
The Rev. William Barber II, head of the state NAACP, was convicted in early December of violating a Legislative Building rule and second-degree trespass.
Barber lauded the 120-some attorneys who have volunteered their time to represent the protesters. He also spoke out again about the issues that brought thousands to Raleigh each Monday between April 29 and late July.
They criticized public-school job cuts, private-school vouchers, voter ID laws and tax-reform proposals that they said protected the wealthy while cutting benefits for the poor. They spoke out against decisions by the Republican-led General Assembly to scale back unemployment benefits for the chronically out-of-work and the refusal to expand Medicaid benefits as part of the new federal health law.
Advocates of the Republican agenda have criticized the protesters for helping to rack up overtime costs for capital city law enforcement agencies and taxing a court system struggling to keep pace with other criminal cases.
Some of the trials have spanned several days.
It is unclear what, if any, implications the decision to dismiss charges related to the May 20 arrests will have on those already convicted.
Since the first conviction, defense attorneys and prosecutors have honed their arguments for the two judges in Wake County district court presiding over the cases.
Mary Elizabeth Wilson, an assistant district attorney, prosecuted dozens of the cases. But this month, several other assistant district attorneys have been presenting the evidence.
In some of the 2013 trials for protesters arrested in late April and early May, Wilson was able to play video in court that showed the individuals she was prosecuting either holding up signs, speaking or singing. Those rallies drew smaller crowds than subsequent rallies and offered fewer obstacles for law enforcement officers trying to train video cameras on the demonstrators they contended were breaking the law.
Judge: Regulations vague
Judge Joyce Hamilton, a former Wake County district court judge, hired by the Administrative Office of the Courts to help with the hundreds of trials, let the prosecutors and defense teams know in November that she found Legislative Building regulations governing the posting or displaying of signs or placards unconstitutional because of their vagueness.
This week, after one of the demonstrators testified about going into the Legislative Building to advocate for equal rights, the judge said that decades earlier she had been among those at a rally for the Equal Rights Amendment and that no arrests occurred then.
Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby urged the General Assembly police chief in July to consider citing the protesters instead of arresting them.
At the time, the General Assembly police force had arrested nearly 700 demonstrators the first 17 of whom were more than the agency had made in the past six years.
Willoughby further stated that he was worried that a small agency, such as the General Assembly force, may be overwhelmed by this and may be responsive to persons who are more focused on political issues than real public safety issues.
Weaver has said at several trials that it was his decision to make the arrests.
Efforts to reach Willoughby on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Attorneys volunteering for the NAACP say they hope to organize a meeting to urge the prosecutors office to take a different tack.
If you cannot convict at least half of the people arrested all charged with the same crime we think the momentum behind prosecuting them is no longer there, McSurely said.
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1