A Durham County judge on Monday acquitted one person and dismissed the charges against two others accused of toppling a Durham County Confederate monument last summer.
District Court Judge Fred Battaglia found Raul Mauro Jimenez not guilty of injury to real property, defacing a public building or monument, and conspiracy to deface a public building or monument.
Earlier, Battaglia dismissed the cases against Peter Gilbert and Dante Strobino, who had faced the same three misdemeanor charges in connection with the destruction of the downtown statue Aug. 14.
Assistant District Attorney Ameshia Cooper had called Strobino’s effort to destroy a monument owned and maintained by Durham County “organized destruction,” during her opening arguments.
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“The state will give you a behind-the-scene look to destroy a monument here in Durham,” she had said. “Your honor, you will learn that this was not a spontaneous event but a well-orchestrated plan.”
But the judge dismissed the charges against Gilbert, who is a staff attorney with North Carolina Legal Aid, and Strobino after defense attorney Scott Holmes made a motion to dismiss in each case.
The judge said the prosecution had proved the statue was destroyed but not by whom.
“The court finds the state has failed to identify who the perpetrator was. ... Furthermore, the court has noted there is no evidence of a conspiracy,” Battaglia said in Strobino’s case.
Strobino was the first of eight people to go on trial on the three misdemeanor charges. The remaining defendants are Takiyah Thompson, Elena Everett, Jessica Nicole Jude, Qasima Wideman and Joseph Karlik. Their trials are expected to take place on April 2.
Cooper had asked the judge pay close attention to three things: the defendants’ movements, actions and demeanor.
Cooper presented a number of witnesses, including a Durham resident who was present and recorded the incident, the county’s security manager, and two sheriff’s deputies.
Most of Holmes’ opening statement centered not on the charges, but on how the monument infringed on others’ rights.
“The object is a symbol of the traitorous revolt of the Southern states to violently defend human slavery,” Holmes said.
The defense plans to show the monument violated federal and state laws by violating the constitutional guarantee of equal protection for all citizens and endorsing racial discrimination and the overthrow of the government.
The monument also violated state law that prohibits the use of a public building in teaching the violent overthrow of the government, Holmes said.
Over the course of the three trials, Cooper introduced two main pieces of video evidence.
The first was a video taken by Durham resident Kelly Murphy, which was picked up by the Associated Press and published by The Washington Post. The video, possibly taken standing on East Main Street, shows the statue falling to the ground.
A Durham County official recorded the second video from the steps of the old courthouse and administration building in front of which the statue stood.
Ed Miller, Durham County security manager, said he saw out of the corner of his eye a man with a ladder. Miller then pulled out his phone and started recording. The video shows two men putting a ladder up to the back of the statue and a woman, Takiyah Thompson, with a yellow tow strap climbing the ladder.
Miller identified one of those men with the ladder as Jimenez, who is also seen manipulating the strap as Thompson climbed the ladder, Miller said.
Cooper said they set out evidence to support that the statue was damaged, that Jimenez held the ladder, and assisted with the rope. His actions indicate that he was working with others to make it happen.
Holmes argued that the defense hadn’t proven the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. Cross-racial identification is unreliable, a point he demonstrated in court by asking Miller if Cooper and another woman looked similar.
Miller said no.
“We heard from the state’s own witness that identified my client in the video who said that this person does not look this person, her twin sister,” he said.
Strobino said he wasn’t surprised the charges were dismissed, because fighting white supremacy isn’t a crime.
“It wasn’t one or two lone individuals,” Strobino said. “It was the mass of the community that did it. So we are not surprised they couldn’t pin it on one or two of us. We are going to keep fighting until all the institutions of white supremacy are done and gone.”
‘Wrath and power’
At 8:30 a.m., the activists’ supporters gathered in front of the courthouse to criticize their prosecution.
“These individuals are putting our entire movement on trial, so they will feel the wrath and power of our entire movement,” said Loan Tran, who was also charged but accepted a deal of deferred prosecution.
Instead of focusing on the real crimes of homelessness, poverty and fatal police shootings, prosecutors are focusing on people who “allegedly took very bold action to do something that we all needed done,” Loan Tran said.
Not everyone waiting outside of the courthouse agreed.
William O’Quinn, capital brigade commander of the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans and a Durham resident, said a majority of people do not like what has unfolded since the statue was pulled down.
“They don’t like the monuments torn down,” said O’Quinn, who planned to attend the trials with two others members of the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans. “They don’t like the way the felonies have been dropped.”
Many people want the Confederate soldier who was pulled down to return, he said.
After the third trial ended, supporters marched from Durham County’s East Main Street historic courthouse, where the Confederate statue stood, to the new courthouse on Dillard Street.
Then they stood before the courthouse, chanted and listened to speakers from activists in New York City, Philadelphia and other places.
Larry Holmes, one of the highest officials in the Workers World Party, said Durham demonstrators are continuing the work of freedom fighters by pulling down a nearly century-old statue that reminded African Americans of the chains of white supremacy that still bind them.
“When you tear down a statue, you remind everybody who is paying attention that some day we will tear down things that are bigger than statues,” Holmes said.
Thompson and some of the others who were charged are affiliated with the communist organization, the Workers World Party.
During the Aug. 14 protest, Takiyah Thompson climbed a ladder, placed a yellow towing strap around the bronze statue and others pulled it to the ground. The statue crashed to the ground, where it crumpled and protesters started kicking it.
Twelve people were initially charged with two felonies and two misdemeanors, but charges were dropped against three of the original 12 defendants because there were no evidence linking them to the toppling, District Attorney Roger Echols has said.
In December, a fourth defendant, Loan Tran, accepted deferred prosecution on three misdemeanor charges – injury to real property, damage to personal property and defacing a public monument – for helping to topple the statue. Tran also agreed to pay $1,250 in restitution and perform 100 hours of community service.