The first activist to face trial for being arrested during this year's mass protests at the North Carolina legislature has been found guilty on all charges.
Wake County District Court Judge Joy Hamilton passed her sentence Friday on defendant Saladin Muammad after a nearly six-hour trial.
Hamilton found the retired factory worker from Rocky Mount guilty of misdemeanor charges for trespassing, failing to disperse and violating building rules at a May 13 protest. He was sentenced to pay a $100 fine.
Muammad's lawyer, Al McSurely, gave immediate notice of appeal. Under state law, Muammad, 68, will now have the option of having his case heard in Superior Court before a jury of 12.
More than 940 people were arrested during the 2013 legislative session, which saw North Carolina take a sharp rightward turn as Republicans exerted control over the General Assembly and the governor's mansion for the first time in more than a century.
The "Moral Monday" protests were organized by the state branch of the NAACP and included a coalition of left-leaning groups opposed to GOP-backed bills they saw as damaging to working people, low income families, public education and the environment. The protests were uniformly no violent, with dozens of people typically waiting patiently in line to be arrested and handcuffed by police.
So far, only about two dozen protesters have taken Wake District Attorney Colon Willoughby up on his offer to defer prosecution in exchange for community service. Charges against a journalist swept up in the police dragnet were dismissed.
That leaves more than 900 people with charges still pending, potentially setting the stage for months of trials. Hamilton, the county's former chief district judge, was brought back from retirement to help handle the load.
Coming first, Muammad's case offers a likely preview of strategies to be employed in the trials to come. An U.S. Army veteran turned labor activist, Muammad was arrested along with 48 others.
McSurely sought to have the charges against his client thrown out, arguing that language in both the state and federal Constitutions protected Muammad's right to protest on public property, especially the state legislative building often called "The People's House."
The North Carolina charter, drafted in 1776, grants the state's citizens the "right to assemble together to consult for their common good, to instruct their representatives, and to apply to the General Assembly for redress of grievances."
Muammad testified that he, like many of the protesters, had tried to unsuccessfully to meet with their legislators one-on-one to discuss their concerns. That left him, he and his lawyer argued, no option other than to protest at the legislature in an attempt to "instruct" the elected representatives and to seek a redress of his grievances.
Asked on the witness stand why he did not vacate the building when ordered by the General Assembly Police to disperse, Muammad replied: "I wasn't trespassing. I'm a taxpayer."
Though the protesters were non-violent, General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver said their singing, clapping and chanting was quite loud and had the potential to disrupt the work of the elected officials. By protesting in the second-floor rotunda outside the tall golden doors leading to the Senate and House, Weaver said lawmakers were forced to use other entrances to the chambers.
The chief also testified that he had reasons to be concerned for the safety of legislators and workers in the building because he recognized known anarchists, occupiers and people with criminal records among the hundreds of protesters.
Assistant District Attorney Mary Elizabeth Wilson argued that under state law, the chief's concern for public safety gave him the discretion to order the crowd to disperse and arrest those that refused to comply, even if those taken into custody were not themselves being disruptive. Just because the General Assembly is a public forum, Wilson said, does not guarantee the public unfettered access.
In the end, Judge Hamilton agreed.
"The statute under which you are charged does not say you actually have to be engaging in disorderly conduct yourself, personally," the judge told Muammad when rendering her verdict. "It says the officer has to reasonably believe disorderly conduct us occurring in order to be able to order people to disperse."
Undeterred by the ruling, McSurely expressed optimism his client will fare better with a jury of 12 average citizens. And with about 65 lawyers volunteering to defend the hundreds of protesters, he predicted more ideas for legal strategies would be tried to win acquittals in the scores of trials to come.
"All of these cases are historic because there's never been a direct confrontation between the people's right to go to the People's House and to protest for redress of anti-people legislation exactly like this," McSurely said. "We're creating new law, basically."