7 NC General Assembly Moral Monday protesters acquitted

ablythe@newsobserver.comMarch 5, 2014 

MORALMONDAY-NE-061713-TEL

Demonstrators hold hands during a Moral Monday protest at the North Carolina State Legislative Building on June 24.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— An attorney representing protesters arrested at the N.C. Legislative Building in June, attempted to call the leaders of both General Assembly chambers on Wednesday as witnesses in the trial of seven people.

John McWilliam, a Raleigh attorney representing some of the demonstrators arrested June 12, said he issued subpoenas for N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Phil Berger to find out more about the enforcement of the building rules his clients had been accused of violating.

A lawyer from the office of Roy Cooper, the N.C. attorney general, successfully quashed the subpoenas for the Republicans at the helm of the state House and Senate.

The attempt to summon the legislative leaders to court came on a day when seven protesters were acquitted for demonstrating in a Legislative Complex that they claim belongs as much to them as to the lawmakers doing business there.

Judge Joyce Hamilton said McWilliam had not successfully shown that testimony from the lawmakers was necessary for his defense.

The decision left an air of uncertainty in the Wake County courtroom about when, if ever, Berger or Tillis had asked for the suspension or enforcement of a rule that states visitors may enter the “Legislative Complex” at any time the buildings are open to the public and may move about freely “with the exceptions limiting visits on the second floor of the State Legislative Building … so long as they do not disturb the General Assembly, one of its houses, or its committees, members, or staff in the performance of their duties.”

“What I wanted to do was get them on the stand and ask them why in some cases the rules are waived. I wanted to try to establish what went into the decision not to waive the rules in this case,” McWilliam said after a morninglong trial that resulted in the judge acquitting the seven protesters on trial.

Months of trials

The accused were among the more than 920 people arrested between April and August outside the General Assembly chambers, the epicenter for a new legislative agenda that demonstrators contended was taking North Carolina, long considered to be among the least conservative Southern states, on a broad swing to the right.

In October, the first protester tried in Wake County district court was found guilty of the three charges that General Assembly police lodged against most of the demonstrators arrested at the “Legislative Complex.” Since then, though, prosecutors have seen more and more cases result in acquittals or dismissal for a lack of specific evidence.

The defense attorneys have shifted their strategies over the past six months.

Hamilton, a former Wake County district court judge appointed by the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts to preside over the trials, and William Lawton, a former Wake County district court judge also appointed to preside over some of the trials, have given the scores of defense attorneys and the handful of prosecutors working on the cases a better idea after each trial about where they stand on certain legal arguments. That has helped streamline a process that in some cases resulted in trials that lasted for days and legal arguments put forward that were as broad and complex as those used in landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases.

On Wednesday, McWilliam argued for dismissal of the charges of second-degree trespass lodged against the demonstrators arrested during a so-called “Witness Wednesday” event held while the N.C. House was debating the budget.

People’s property

The Raleigh attorney argued that no witness called by Wake County Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Cameron touched on a key element for trespass crimes – the owner of the property. “In this case, Judge, you have to be told this is the property of another,” McWilliam argued. “This is not the property of another. This is the very property of the very people who were on the property that day.”

McWilliam pushed ahead with other arguments, saying that his clients had not been given adequate notice that they were violating the building rule they were accused of breaking.

In district court, judges do not have to provide their reasons for their rulings, and Hamilton did not elaborate on the acquittals.

The judge did, however, take a few minutes to speak of the difficulties that General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver had to deal with over the summer as crowds of protesters at the N.C. Legislative Building grew larger and larger over the summer. McWilliam argued that N.C. Legislative Building rules gave the police chief too much discretion to decide who should and should not be arrested, and that, he contended, was a constitutional violation.

“I can’t imagine anybody who’s got a harder job than Chief Weaver,” Hamilton said Wednesday before her ruling. “He’s in a no-win situation.”

Several of the Legislative Complex building rules are so vague as to be “unenforceable,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said she has found herself in the difficult position of being an “armchair quarterback” for decisions that Weaver and the law enforcement officers had to make quickly amid the weekly protests.

The videos taken during the arrests have proven helpful, she said. But during trials in January, the General Assembly police chief said he could recall generalizations about each demonstration where arrests occurred but he had difficulty remembering specific actions of the individuals arrested.

The videos taken of demonstrators singing, praying and chanting in the second-floor rotunda did not capture the specifics in each case, resulting in dozens of dismissals.

This week, trials resulted in more acquittals after defense attorneys pointed out that demonstrators on the third floor of the N.C. Legislative Building were engaging in many of the same actions that protesters were arrested for on the second floor.

Defendants pleased

Andre Knight, a Rocky Mount city council member and Edgecombe County NAACP president acquitted on Wednesday, said afterward he was buoyed by the outcome.

“This was really democracy,” Knight said, “and the arrest was really hypocrisy because this was the People’s House.”

Knight pointed out that some of the trial testimony revealed that lobbyists were in the House chambers the same day the protesters were locked out, “passing notes” and bending the ears of the lawmakers.

Knight, like Bennett Taylor an NAACP leader from Northampton County, had hoped to hear from Tillis and Berger why some were permitted to be a part of the debate and others were not.

“We had something to contribute to the situation, and they didn’t want to open it up,” Taylor said.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby listened to some of the trial on Wednesday and said afterward that his office would review the results and decide how and whether to proceed on the hundreds of cases yet to be tried.

“It’s been interesting. Different facts seem to have an impact on different cases,” said Willoughby, who urged the General Assembly police chief to issue citations to the protesters instead of the mass arrests. “It’s been a significant legal challenge, but we’ll have to look at what we have and decide how to proceed.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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