Durham County commissioners will not have to testify in the trial of those charged with toppling the Confederate statue in August, a judge ruled Friday.
District Judge Fred Battaglia Jr. agreed with County Attorney Lowell Siler’s argument that it is an “undue burden,” on the elected officials and that any information they could provide could be provided by other individuals.
“The county I think has properly articulated that they were not present when an event may or may not have occurred. They have no direct knowledge of what happened,” Battaglia said.
Trials are expected to begin Monday for the eight defendants: Takiyah Thompson, Elena Everett, Raul Mauro Jimenez, Jessica Nicole Jude, Qasima Wideman, Dante Strobino, Peter Gilbert and Joseph Karlik.
The defendants are required to appear in District Court at 9 a.m. Monday, Feb. 19, and their individual trials are expected to start sometime that day.
Defense attorney Scott Holmes subpoenaed the five Durham County commissioners to appear in court Monday to testify in the trials of the eight people charged with three misdemeanors in toppling the monument outside the county’s administrative building and historic former courthouse.
During a demonstration on Aug. 14, Thompson climbed a ladder, placed a yellow moving strap around the bronze, Confederate soldier statue and others pulled it to the ground.
The toppling of the nearly century-old monument on East Main Street came two days after a demonstration around another monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a man drove his car through a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a woman.
Holmes is an N.C. Central University law professor and supervising attorney of the school’s Civil Litigation Clinic who is representing the eight people as part of his private practice, he said.
“You are being called to testify as to the value and meaning of the county property at dispute in this case,” his subpoena said.
But Siler’s successful motion said the five commissioners had “no direct knowledge” of the value of the statue and “no relevant testimony to present.”
Any testimony as to the value of the statue is irrelevant to the guilt or innocence of the defendants, the motion said. The “meaning” of the statue is “irrelevant, over-broad and vague and can’t be testified to,” by commissioners.
Further, the request for commissioners to testify was “an undue burden, unreasonable and oppressive on the commissioners who have numerous responsibilities conducting county business,” the motion said.
In court, Siler argued that the commissioners could only provide hearsay testimony of the value of the statue as county employees gathered that information.
In October, Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs sent a letter District Attorney Roger Echols that valued the bronze statue at $23,789. The lowest estimate to replace the statue was $28,000.
Holmes argued the commissioners could provide other information about the moral value of the statue, based on similar public statements. He also said he didn’t feel the county provided evidence of the undue burden.
If this was a case about property damage at a Walmart store, “we’d get the victims to say, ‘What do you want to do about your stuff?’” he argued. “What is the value of your stuff.”
“Because they are the victim,” Battaglia said.
Here the victim is the county of Durham, Holmes responded.
“The county of Durham is represented by these five folks, who also have to make a decision about whether to replace,” the statue, Holmes said. If the cost of replacement is going to be the standard for restitution, how does that factor in if commissioners say that we don’t to replace it, Holmes said.
The statue is a political symbol, Holmes said.
“The value of that is more than just the cost to replacement, if the county of Durham and its elected officials say, ‘You know what? It is a liability. We were glad to have that thing down because Nazis were killing people in Charlottesville,’” Holmes said. “And that would be an important thing to consider in setting the value for the thing that my clients are charged with damaging.”
After the toppling, commissioners said they don’t support replacing the statue.
“As far as I know, there are no members who support replacing that memorial, knowing the history of it and the pain and suffering” it has caused in the community, Jacobs said in late August.
However, civil disobedience typically has consequences, a majority of the commissioners also said in interviews and social media posts.
Twelve people were initially charged with two felonies and two misdemeanors after the incident, but Echols later decided to not move forward with the felony charges.
Charges were dropped against three of the original 12 defendants because there was no evidence linking them to the toppling, Echols has said.
In December, Loan Tran accepted deferred prosecution on three misdemeanor charges – injury to real property, damage to personal property and defacing a public monument – for helping to topple the statue. Tran also agreed to pay $1,250 in restitution and perform 100 hours of community service.
The eight defendants are charged with conspiracy to deface real property, injury to real property, defacing a public building or monument, and conspiracy to deface a public building or monument.