Monday, December 19, 2016

Mountain (In)justice

A Class 1 misdemeanor in Virginia is the highest of the misdemeanor classifications. It's punishable by up to 12 months in jail, as opposed to prison, and is punishable with a fine of up to $2,500.

All of the links in this blog are redirects to videos, audio, and an independently published article supporting my claims. This is the true story of what happened to me.

On October 5th 2016, I was charged with a Class 1 Misdemeanor and served with an Order of Protection. The incident that lead to the criminal complaint occurred just before 9am outside of a Mitchelltown, Virginia convenience store. I was stopped in the parking lot by the plaintiff who, per his sworn statement to the Magistrate and the court, "followed me out of the store." The content of our conversation is still disputed, but no one disputed the fact that I was leaving the store when the plaintiff followed me and provoked our confrontation. The plaintiff's initial statement to the police, his statement to the court, the store surveillance video used at my November 16th trial, and eyewitness testimony confirmed this.  

I was accused of threatening to kill man (in public) and creating a public disturbance. In his statement to the Magistrate, the plaintiff said, “He then reached in his pocket; not sure what he had I turned and walked ‘by’ into the store.” What I reached for was my phone. I thought he was going to say I hit him, so I started recording. When I ended the recording I had 25 seconds of video. I left the store thinking everything was over only to be visited two hours later during my live radio show by a member of law enforcement who gave me a chance to tell my side of the story. At the completion of our talk I was assured nothing more would come of this situation. I look back and regret not letting the official know about my video. I didn't let anyone associated with law enforcement see the video I recorded. Approximately 13 hours after the incident I was told by a coworker at my 2nd job that I needed to stop by the Sheriff’s Office before I went home. Before I went inside the Sheriff’s office I used my phone and some recording equipment to wire myself. I left with a 19-min mp3 that further complicated an already frustrating situation. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, it's legal for citizens to record conversations with law enforcement. Once I got home, I made copies of the audio and video files I recorded and emailed them to a few people I trust. The misinformation I received from the deputy who processed my paperwork made me feel like I was being set up. I was so paranoid that I mistook his ignorance of the law with malice. The very next day (Thursday) I made a video detailing the events from the day before, and on Friday I retained legal counsel: a local attorney I trust and a Black woman from Richmond connected to several civil rights organizations.

On October 19th, two weeks after the incident, the protective order against me was dropped and replaced with a no contact order. I was given a strict warning not to be in the immediate proximity of the plaintiff ahead of my November 16th trial. In the two week period between the accusation and my first court appearance I was treated like I was already guilty by many people in my community. I had a cadre of very supportive people: young, old, rich, poor, black, and white, but they were indeed in the minority. There were people I worked with on various projects over the last few years who treated me like I was Hannibal Lector. My wife and I traveled every weekend just to get away from the constant questions about that morning. For 6 weeks, I lived under a presumption of guilt. I was (incorrectly) told by the deputy who served my warrant that I wouldn’t be able to attend county government meetings because of the protective order: thus limiting my ability to participate in some very important local issue. On several occasions before my preliminary hearing Bath County Sheriff's Deputies publicly and privately admitted they knew the plaintiff had been causing problems with other citizens, but felt powerless to act. When I asked what was being done to protect other citizens from this kind of abuse I was told, “We know what’s going on.” They truly believed their knowledge of the problem was a viable remedy to it.

In the weeks before my confrontation with the plaintiff I faced incredible harassment: I had horse manure delivered to my day job multiple times, I received a threatening phone call from an elected official the day before I was confronted, and I had another elected official threaten to cut funds to a non profit organization I'm affiliated with. For as bad as the harassment was in the weeks before the confrontation, things proceeded to get worse. Someone close to the plaintiff contacted two venues I was scheduled to give talks at and tried to get my speaking engagements cancelled. I had to suspend a business opportunity that was planned for November due to the loss of revenue that came from canceling speaking engagements and the legal expenses I incurred. Even though the case was dismissed, my family and church suffered immensely: my mother lost close to 20 pounds worrying about the outcome of my trial, my wife spent six weeks answering questions about my mental stability, and our church came under undue scrutiny for having ordained someone like me.

This story really got confusing after I was found not guilty. The Commonwealth’s Attorney for Bath County didn’t want to prosecute the case: he thought it was ridiculous. A special prosecutor from another county was tapped to prosecute me. I learned that the magistrate didn’t want to issue the misdemeanor warrant. The Sheriff met with me a number of times to assure me that neither he nor anyone in his department was out to get me, yet I had my life spun upside down by someone with too much free time on their hands, a grudge, and the support of elected officials. The overwhelming majority of people representing the legal system in our area didn’t want this issue to go further than it had, but I still found myself in court facing a criminal charge.

In the time since my charges were dropped I’ve asked myself two questions over and over: what if there wasn't a surveillance video of this incident? What if this happened to someone passing through town who didn't have access to a proper legal defense? During my trial I was questioned in a very vindictive and mean-spirited way. It was more than a ferocious prosecutor doing his job; It was personal and condescending. At one point during my cross examination the prosecutor wanted the judge to find me in contempt of court. I had all of the evidence on my side, over thirty people showed up to support me, the sheriff testified on my behalf, the manager at the convenience store testified she never felt the situation created a public disturbance, and I still had to fight like hell to prove my innocence. This is what justice looks like for too many people in our society. Even with all of the evidence supporting me, I had to be perfect to get the benefit of the doubt necessary for a flimsy case like this to be dismissed.

I've spent the majority of my adult life pointing out and fighting against systemic inequalities in society and our legal system. I use the platform I have to highlight the injustices I see. I’ve lost employment opportunities and speaking fees because of my public stances on issues related to the Black community. A lot of people are shielded from the subtle kinds of racism black people deal with on any given day, so they are often surprised when they hear claims of racism. Just because a Black person has caring and supportive white friends doesn't mean they can't be touched by racism. This is a reality Black people need to stay in touch with. When your skin color is enough to warrant suspicion there's no amount of intellect, wealth, or success that can protect you. If my situation occurred somewhere else I can't say with confidence that the outcome would have been the same. We live in a country where too often Black victims of crimes are talked about worse than their killers. My situation was steeped in ignorance, but race played a part in the way I was treated. I have audio and video of people doing worse than I was accused of (in front of law enforcement) and their actions were ignored. I was one of the lucky ones.
There's a sequel to this piece chronicling the disturbing behavior of our elected officials. 

Click the link below to read the full article from The Recorder