What might have been Richmond’s most politically charged trial of 2012 ended
quickly and quietly in the John Marshall Courts building today.
*Edited a few hours after posting to include new information
Officer (Cars) Down
Jeremy Hawthorne, member of the Wingnut Anarchist Collective in Barton Heights, received a felony sentence of one year in jail and a $1,300 fine today for allegedly slashing the tires of seven VCU police and security vehicles. The case was practically written for tabloid journalism – “Anarchists Attack and Disable Police Cruisers” – and I arrived at the courthouse expecting to hear as much about the anti-authoritarian politics of the Wingnuts during the trial as I did about whether Jeremy was actually guilty.
It was not to be. Minutes before the trial began, Jeremy’s court appointed attorney proposed that his residence at the Wingnut and its politics not be mentioned in front of the jury. She was worried that associating him with a high-profile anarchist group would affect the jury’s perception of him negatively. The prosecuting attorney would presumably love to bring the group’s not-so-subtle rhetoric into the courtroom as evidence against him.
Against expectation, the prosecution quickly agreed to the ban on politics, and what had been a powder keg was almost instantly robbed of any mainstream media relevance. Jeremy would soon be just another convicted felon.
To understand why the Commonwealth so readily agreed to omit politics from the trial and how that affected its outcome, a brief primer is in order.
The Wingnut regularly makes headlines in Richmond. From their participation in the occupation of Monroe Park (long before the more recent Occupy phenomenon) to their film screenings and house shows, to their appearance on the cover of Style Weekly holding rifles, one can expect to see the collective’s name in print almost monthly.
It was a year ago that the state last tested its legal resolve against the Wingnut. Richmond Cop Watch, largely staffed by Wingnuts, requested and received almost every Richmond police department training manual through the Freedom of Information Act. Immediately thereafter, the RPD realized who they had given the information to and filed a law suit to retrieve the documents, citing that the information should not have been given to “known and admitted anarchists”. The Washington Post picked up the story, as did Style Weekly, and I produced a 10 minute radio segment on the case for Weekly Sedition.
The ACLU harshly criticized the Richmond police department for openly denying the legal right to request information based on political ideology, and they eventually gave up, dropping the suit altogether.
Between conflicts like these, and the regular activities of Cop Watch in Barton Heights and at First Fridays, Jeremy and the other Wingnuts are well known to Richmond police.
Leaving Things Out
In one hypothetical scenario, we can imagine the prosecutor wanting the jury to know that Jeremy was a member of an anarchist group, counting on their verbal (but as of yet, not illegal) lashing out at authority in general and Richmond police specifically. But if the trial became political with this kind of past between the RPD and the Wingnut, it would bolster the impression that their accusations were politically motivated. They had seen where that led, and lost.
As it turns out, the omission of this political history ended up leaving huge gaps in the narrative of the prosecution during Jeremy’s trial. Officer Calhoun testified on the stand that when he saw stills of the perpetrator from overhead surveillance cameras, which the Commonwealth’s prosecutor called “admittedly grainy”, he immediately thought of someone who might resemble the person. Because of the gag agreement, he couldn’t say why the image of this barely discernible person in a city of 200,000 people made him think of one person in particular. The jury never asked.
Detective Greer of the VCU police told the jury that he had officially obtained Jeremy’s name from the DMV, but because of the gag agreement, could not specify how he knew what information to give the DMV to obtain that name. The jury never seemed to notice.
Because the Wingnut is a collective, property is not strictly delineated, and its bicycle rack (on which the police claim to have found a bike similar to the one in the video) is accessible to a large number of people. Because this broaches the political, it was not mentioned.
And finally, everyone without historical perspective was left to merely speculate as to why Commonwealth Attorney Christopher Toepp made the unusual move of requesting to try the case personally.
Reporters and other observers were not able to view the surveillance video or the stills, except during the moments that the prosecution shuffled them around during the trial, and only then from a distance. I cannot say whether they reveal Jeremy as the perpetrator. I can say that they were grainy, dimly lit and did not reveal a face, but without adequate opportunity to examine them closely, I can’t have a firm opinion about the identity of the individual. Given that the prosecution’s case, in its own words, was “purely circumstantial”, I am forced to question whether the police department’s familiarity with Jeremy was the prime motivator for either the initial suspicion or the ensuing pursuit of his conviction.
Jeremy plans to file an appeal, and he may have good grounds for doing so. Only 48 hours before the case went to trial, the attorney assigned to represent him by the Commonwealth declared a family emergency and declined to appear. Despite the extremely short notice, the Commonwealth refused to set a new date and the new defense attorney, with zero time to prepare, did not call a single witness.
The case will continue to unfold on the morning of April 6th in the John Marshall court building.