The Wake County district attorney announced Friday that he would dismiss all but about 50 cases against protesters arrested at the N.C. Legislative Building in 2013.
District Attorney Ned Mangum announced his decision four days after the first case to reach Wake County Superior Court was dismissed.
Mangum said he planned to proceed with cases against the demonstrators arrested July 22, 2013, and July 24, 2013, because the evidence is different in about 50 cases.
On July 22, 2013, neither chamber of the General Assembly was in session when the demonstrators filed into the Legislative Building and gathered in the second-floor rotunda area where they typically did each week during the so-called “Moral Monday” rallies.
Protesters clapped, chanted, sang.
“On that date, we believe the building was closed then,” Mangum explained.
Defense attorneys argue otherwise. They point out that N.C. General Assembly police let demonstrators inside after the 5 p.m. closing time. From that day, according to Mangum’s count, 26 cases are pending at the Wake County District Court, where the initial trials are held. Twenty-one cases from that demonstration have been appealed to Wake County Superior Court.
On July 24, 2013, six people were arrested at N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis’ office after refusing to leave when they could not get a meeting with him about new election laws.
Mangum said he did not include any of the cases from 2014 because General Assembly police had changed their plans for dealing with protesters. Also new rules governing the N.C. Legislative Building and wider complex were adopted earlier this year.
Those rules are being challenged in court as unconstitutional.
“We are glad the district attorney decided to dismiss most of the Moral Monday cases,” said Scott Holmes, a Durham defense lawyer and director of the N.C. Central University Civil Litigation Law Clinic who has represented many of those arrested. “We appreciate the care that judges and prosecutors have given these cases. We understand why the district attorney is continuing to prosecute a few cases that may be factually different.”
In 2013, during the first legislative session that Republicans in North Carolina had control of both General Assembly chambers and the governor’s office for more than a century, the NAACP organized a series of demonstrations to protest the sharp swing to the political right.
More than 900 people were arrested.
“We never went in to be arrested,” the Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said in a statement Friday. “We went in to challenge what we believed then, and believe now, are constitutionally inconsistent, morally indefensible and economically insane extremist policies.
“The General Assembly is the ‘People’s House,’ ” Barber added. “Today’s decision to dismiss virtually all charges against the messengers of justice sends another message to extremists who would take our state backwards. The Constitution is alive and well. It stands for justice and fair play. It pumps oxygen into the halls of democracy. This is a great victory for the voice and protest of all people.”
Clarity from U.S. Supreme Court
Since the trials started late last summer, some of the protesters have been found guilty. Others have been acquitted, and others had their cases dismissed.
The varied verdicts from the early trials offered a portrait of a justice system where legal strategies, personalities and the slightest difference in evidence can affect the outcome of a case. Defense attorneys representing the demonstrators argued in each case that the constitutional rights of the protesters had been violated.
But it was not until June, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law governing protest-free zones around abortion clinics, that two Wake County District Court judges issued written rulings explaining their orders for dismissal.
In their unanimous decision, the justices at the country’s highest court said attempts to create spaces on public property where protesting is not allowed does not withstand constitutional scrutiny.
After that ruling, Judge Joyce Hamilton, a retired district court judge who has presided over the bulk of the General Assembly protesters’ trials, threw out five cases from July 15, 2013. Her reasons for doing so were based largely on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Hamilton issued a written order in which she stated that General Assembly police “failed to explore less restrictive means” to deal with the disturbance that law enforcement officers contended had been created by the thousands gathered inside the Legislative Building.
Hamilton wrote that the “orders to disperse were not narrowly tailored” and therefore constituted an “unconstitutional burden” upon the demonstrators’ rights “to peacefully assembly and speak.”
Anne Salisbury, a retired District Court judge appointed recently by the state Administrative Office of the Courts to preside over Moral Monday cases, followed with a similar ruling.
On Monday, Judge Donald Stephens released his ruling for the first appeal heard in Wake County Superior Court. He ruled that the constitutional rights of Leonard Beeghley, a retired professor and a member of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Durham, were violated when he was arrested June 17, 2013.
Mangum, the district attorney, said earlier this week that though he was aware of the dismissals in District Court, he thought it was important to have a case on appeal heard in Superior Court before tossing out hundreds of cases.