NAACP leader, 11 others guilty in state legislature protests
RALEIGH (AP) — A judge on Wednesday found North Carolina NAACP President William Barber and 11 others guilty of second-degree trespassing and violating building rules while protesting in April at the state legislature.
Wake County District Court Judge Joy Hamilton issued her ruling after a two-day trial during which defense lawyers argued that the protesters’ actions were protected by both the U.S. and state constitutions.
The dozen defendants in court this week were among the first of more than 930 people arrested during the 2013 legislative session as part of “Moral Monday” protests organized by the NAACP with a coalition of left-leaning groups against the policies of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and lawmakers.
Hundreds of activists rallied weekly against GOP decisions that included rejecting Medicaid expansion for an estimated 500,000 low-income workers under the federal health care overhaul, passing tax cuts that primarily favor the wealthy, and an expansive rewrite of the state’s voting laws that will make it more difficult to cast a ballot.
After his conviction, Barber promised more protests in coming months ramping up to the General Assembly’s 2014 session starting in May.
“We’re in a state where we’re seeing a great deal of extremism,” Barber said. “We today have been convicted for our convictions, but our convictions don’t change.”
Hamilton sentenced the defendants to each pay a $100 fine and court costs. The defense gave immediate notice of appeal for the two convictions.
Hamilton earlier dismissed a third misdemeanor count after ruling the state had not presented sufficient evidence to support charges that the protesters had failed to disperse following the order of General Assembly police Chief Jeff Weaver that they were engaging in an unlawful assembly. Hamilton agreed with defense lawyers that Weaver did not have evidence that the protesters were engaging in disorderly conduct, defined by state law as fighting or engaging in conduct that poses an imminent threat of violence.
That left the remaining charges of second-degree trespassing and violating the building rules at the legislature by displaying and disturbing the elected officials with prayers, hymns and chants of civil rights slogans in the rotunda outside the doors of the N.C. Senate.
Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Philip King testified Tuesday that he could hear a loud commotion outside the legislative chamber from his post on the April evening the protesters were arrested after 7:04, the time the scheduled legislative session began. Weaver testified Wednesday that the process of arresting the protesters that night didn’t end until more than 30 minutes later.
But the defense used videos recorded by the police to call those claims into question through digital time stamps appearing to show all the protesters had been handcuffed and removed prior to the start of that night’s Senate session.
Authorities also testified that the protesters obstructed legislative operations by blocking the large ornate doors that serve as the primary entrance to the Senate chamber. But both King and Weaver testified that those doors were locked prior to the protesters’ arrival and that legislators moved freely through some of the six other doors providing access to the meeting room.
Still, Hamilton ruled that the protests had caused a disruption at the General Assembly and that they had failed to comply with a lawful order to leave. As part of her verdict, however, she agreed with the defense that the legislature’s rules for decorum were vague and overly broad.
Under state law, defendants found guilty in district court have the automatic right of appeal to a superior court trial by jury.
Duke University professor and author Tim Tyson, one of the defendants convicted Wednesday, said he was proud to be part of the protest movement.
“I’m proud to be in North Carolina, where we stand up for the poor, and the weak, and those who can’t speak for themselves, and where we believe in voting rights,” Tyson said.