Local Republicans upset with a Durham County judge's decisions in recent Confederate statue trials left a meeting Thursday night upset with, or at least critical of, the District Attorney's Office.
"[The cases weren't] given the resources that it would take to do it right," said John Lloyd, a member of the Durham County GOP and a Durham City Council member from 1991 to 1995. "The DA was in the background, if anywhere."
About 45 people, mostly Republicans from Durham and surrounding counties, came to the GOP headquarters on North Mangum Street to hear District Court Judge Fred Battaglia discuss his decisions. Battaglia dismissed three misdemeanor charges against two people in the case after the prosecutor presented her evidence and found another person not guilty.
The next day District Attorney Roger Echols dismissed the charges against the five remaining defendants, saying it would be a misuse of resources trying them on the same evidence.
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Members of the local Republican party were “exasperated,” said Immanuel Jarvis, chairman of the Durham County GOP.
A representative of the county GOP reached out to the judge to express a “grave concern about what had happened and the decision that was made,” Jarvis said. Conversations led a rare opportunity to hear a judge discuss his decision.
Questions Thursday night included what message the case sent to young people and whether the D.A.’s Office intentionally did not ask the right questions.
Battaglia responded to the question about young people saying he teaches Sunday school, and responds to concerns raised there.
“Where they are right now is being afraid of going to school, getting shot at school," he said. "It is hard to talk about other issues."
In response to the question about the prosecution, he said, “I don’t want to speculate.”
Then Battaglia mentioned the Duke and Carolina games on Thursday night and used a metaphor.
“If the third string goes in tonight at 9 p.m., what do you think is going to happen?” he said. “I was raised old school. If you try a case, you try it hard. But if you run your third string, you know what is going to happen.”
Battaglia said he did not see Echols in the courtroom.
“I just know I saw a young lady in there with no help,” he said.
Echols, who wasn’t at Thursday's meeting, said an interview Friday morning that Assistant District Attorney Ameshia Cooper has more than three years experience. If the judge is implying Echols didn’t assign his most experienced prosecutors, such as the ones working or homicide or child sex abuse cases, “no, I didn’t,” the district attorney said.
He chose the prosecutor whose job is to prosecute property crimes, Echols said.
Battaglia, who was out of the country when the statue was pulled down Aug. 14, said he could only base his decisions on the evidence.
Most of the evidence centered on two videos. One was shot by a Durham resident but acquired and edited by The Washington Post, which only let it be used to illustrate the testimony, not necessarily to identify participants. The second was shot by Durham County security manager Ed Miller.
During the three trials, Cooper struggled to clearly identify and connect defendants in the courtroom with those in a video taken by Miller and to prove that their actions damaged the statue.
“[Defense attorney] Scott Holmes is an excellent lawyer," Battaglia said. "Regardless of what you think about him or don’t, he is an excellent trial lawyer. He is very smart. Knows the law. Knows the rules of evidence."
“And then we have Ameshia Cooper, who I think is a very lovely person and I think highly of her, with very little experience. With very little experience.”
Miller was standing on the steps of the Durham County’s historic East Main Street courthouse and current administration building, recording with his cell phone. The Confederate statue is in front of the courthouse.
“What do I see on the video? The back of people’s heads ... that is what I saw,” Battaglia said. “The one person you could clearly see was Ms. [Takiyah ] Thompson, was clearly visible. She was never tried that day.”
On the day the statue was pulled down, organizers brought a ladder downtown. Thompson climbed the ladder and was handed a tow strap. She put the yellow strap around the statue and threw the strap to the ground, where others quickly pulled the bronze statue down.
As the statue comes down, Battaglia said, “all I see [in the video] is leaves. I can’t even see who is pulling it down.”
Echols said his office used the evidence it had.
“Obviously we don’t investigate. The sheriff’s department does,” Echols said. “I am not being critical of the sheriff’s department in any way.”
Those who attended Thursday evening said they left with a better understanding of what happened. They also expressed concern about how the District Attorney’s Office handled the case.
Jarvis wondered what would have happened if a Martin Luther King Jr. monument had been pulled down.
“I wonder if [Echols] would have come into the courthouse to actually prosecute that case,” he said. “I wonder if he said we will have her go in there with a little bit of evidence and see what happens.”
Echols said he understands the questions, but that there are many more factors beyond what type of statue it was.
If the facts were the same, he said, he would try it the same way.
“I still have to look at the facts and what can be proven,” he said.