Protesters accused of toppling a Confederate statue in downtown Durham last summer may avoid felony charges, an attorney said Tuesday.
Defense attorney Scott Holmes said District Attorney Roger Echols indicated “in the last day or so” that the state will not pursue felony charges against the remaining nine people accused in the Aug. 14 incident, which followed a march by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which one counterprotester was killed.
Echols’ response to Holmes’ comments wasn’t as clear.
Holmes may be “responding or speaking about what he expects to be the case based on conversations” with the DA’s office, Echols said.
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“Unfortunately or fortunately I cannot talk about what our conversations have been or even what our negotiations have been,” Echols said. “That would even include confirming whatever (Holmes) said or denying its accuracy. Of course I don’t know what has been said or not said in court by those prosecutors representing the state.”
Holmes first made the statement in a Tuesday morning court appearance for seven of the nine charged with the toppling. Their cases were continued to Dec. 5, at which time Holmes said a plea deal could be announced or they could go to trial on the remaining misdemeanor charges.
The North Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans responded with a statement expressing “outrage and disgust.”
“Through various comments and media stories, the Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols has indicated his unwillingness to pursue full justice in this matter against the self-styled communists and activists that took the law into their own hands on August 14,” it states.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans also took issue with Durham County’s estimate of how much it would cost to replace the damaged statue, $28,000, saying the figure should be four times more.
“We demand that the individuals responsible, who have repeatedly reveled in their deeds, be held to account in accordance with North Carolina General Statutes and the rule of law,” the statement says. “Instead, these would-be felons are treated as celebrities and validated as freedom fighters. In fact, they are base criminals and immature demagogues who have chosen to self-righteously dismantle our society rather than work to improve it.”
12 initially charged
Twelve people were initially charged with felonies accusing them of participating in a riot with property damage over $1,500 and inciting others to riot with property damage over $1,500. They also face misdemeanors accusing them of injury to personal property over $200, injury to real property, and defacing or injuring a public monument.
Echols recently dropped charges against three of the people charged in the toppling, saying there was no evidence to support their involvement.
Loan Tran, who was charged in the case, said the District Attorney’s Office faced pressure from the community and others across the country.
“We do consider it a win for our movement, and it really demonstrates when people organize, and when we fight back, we are able to win,” Tran said.
They still need to fight the misdemeanor charges as well as support those facing charges for wearing a mask or bringing a gun to an Aug. 18 gathering to counterprotest a rumored white supremacist rally that never materialized.
Representatives from groups including the Durham Human Relations Commission, the People’s Alliance and the Jewish Voice for Peace Triangle NC, spoke out in favor of the activists’ Aug. 14 actions and called for the charges to be dropped during a rally in front of the courthouse that followed Tuesday’s court hearing. Former mayoral candidate Pierce Freelon also spoke, and City Council member-elect DeDreana Freeman attended.
Takiyah Thompson, who climbed the ladder and placed the strap around the East Main Street statue on Aug. 14, said anti-racists activists are convening “an independent commission of inquiry” to investigate racist crimes against people and obstruction of justice by people in power.
“Police officers, district attorneys and judges that uphold unjust preemption laws and thwart the will of the people, intimidate us into silence and incarcerate us for crimes of survival,” Thompson said.
Tran said the commission will includes arrestees, lawyers, organizers and community members.
“The point of the commission is to create a community-driven data and fact finding body that is able to investigate,” such issues as deaths at the Durham County jail and a 2015 state law that prohibits removing Confederate monuments on public property, Tran said.
The evidence will be presented at a series of people’s tribunals, Tran said, and the public will be the ultimate judge.
“It is an opportunity to give our community the space to offer their stories and testimonies that might not be heard by the traditional criminal justice system,” Tran said.