Durham County

Durham man arrested at jail protest fought the law, and won

Le’Andre Blakeney, left, and his attorney Scott Holmes in Durham County District Court on Monday, Aug. 7, 2017. Blakeney and four others were arrested during a protest over the county jail at a Durham County commissioners meeting.
Le’Andre Blakeney, left, and his attorney Scott Holmes in Durham County District Court on Monday, Aug. 7, 2017. Blakeney and four others were arrested during a protest over the county jail at a Durham County commissioners meeting. vbridges@heraldsun.com

A judge found a Durham man not guilty of two misdemeanors he was charged with after he was arrested among protesters outside a Durham County commissioners meeting in March.

Special District Court Judge Nancy Gordon acquitted Le’Andre Blakeney of disorderly conduct and resisting a public officer Wednesday, according to Blakeney and his attorney Scott Holmes.

A third charge, which was initially inciting a riot but was changed to unlawful assembly minutes before the trial started, was dismissed by Gordon on Tuesday.

“I feel good and relieved that it is all over with and it played out in my favor,” said Blakeney, a 26-year-old Duke University divinity student from East Spenser, near Salisbury. “I feel like on the issues, we will still continue to amplify our voices for people on the inside (of the jail).”

Efforts to reach Assistant District Attorney Alex Herskowitz after court were unsuccessful.

Blakeney and four others were charged with three misdemeanors – disorderly conduct, resisting a public officer and inciting a riot – at a March 13 county commissioners meeting.

The four others, Duke math lecturer Rann Bar-On, 37, youth pastor Joe Stapleton, 28, Duke student Greg Williams, 27, and Mia Hutchins-Cabibi, 33, agreed to do community service in exchange for the charges being dismissed.

But Blakeney said he arrived at the commissioners meeting late and should not have been arrested. The five people are associated with inmate advocacy group the Inside-Outside Alliance.

Holmes represented Blakeney for free at the trial.

“I have been defending protesters like this since before the Occupy movement,” Holmes said. “They are inspiring. Every time I look into their eyes, I see a young Rosa Parks”

The Inside-Outside Alliance was protesting the sheriff’s plan to start a video visitation program, in which inmates would meet with visitors via a monitor in the jail’s lobby. They worry video visitation will end in-person visits, but Sheriff Mike Andrews said that isn’t the case.

Blakeney’s trial featured testimony from County Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs, County Manager Wendell Davis and Sheriff’s Office Maj. Paul Martin.

During Jacob’s state of the county address at the March 13 meeting, members of the alliance started reading inmates’ letters outlining their concerns.

Jacobs and Davis testified that commissioners asked Davis to ask the Sheriff’s Office to restore order to the meeting after it was recessed briefly. Jacobs then unsuccessfully attempted to resume her speech, but protesters continued to interrupt.

The commissioners chambers was packed to capacity, and Davis and Jacobs didn’t know whether Blakeney was one of the protestors who stood up and read letters, they said.

One deputy testified he escorted Blakeney out of the room, but witnesses for the defense presented photos and videos that indicated he wasn’t in the commissioners chambers.

The March protest remained mostly peaceful until the activists had been escorted and dragged into the lobby. In a scuffle between deputies and protesters, Williams ended up on the ground.

Bar-On asked for a deputy’s name and badge number, and words were exchanged. Bar-On was arrested. Protesters started to chant “Let him go!” and eventually stopped. Martin repeatedly asked protesters to leave, and warned that those who didn’t would be arrested. He then blocked the door and called for some of the protesters to be arrested.

Martin testified Monday that Blakeney was part of the chaotic crowd, pushing and chanting outside the commissioners’ chambers.

“I have been in many riots, and I am sure he pushed me,” Martin said.

Deputy Jason Petty arrested Blakeney at the protest. Petty testified that Blakeney initially tensed up, a term used to describe the action of a suspect that indicates he or she might be getting ready to flee or an assault an officer, but quickly complied. After being shown a photo, Petty recalled that Blakeney also put his hands up in the air before he was handcuffed.

Another video showed protesters outside of the chambers and Blakeney standing around and observing, Holmes said.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges