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First ‘Moral Monday’ protestor to stand trial is found guilty

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Chuck Liddy - cliddy@newsobserver.com
Saladin Muhammad, smiles as a video of him being arrested at a Moral Monday demonstration is played during his trial the Wake County Justice Center In Raleigh, N.C. Friday Oct.4, 2013.

RALEIGH Minutes after a labor organizer from Rocky Mount was convicted of all charges related to his arrest in “Moral Monday” protests at the state legislature, the lawyer who represented the demonstrator asked the judge to recuse herself from other cases.

Judge Joy Hamilton, a former Wake County District Court judge appointed by the state to preside over the Moral Monday trials, took the matter under advisement.

Saladin Muhammad, 68, the Rocky Mount organizer, was among the early wave of protesters arrested during the Moral Monday demonstrations at the General Assembly and was the first to be tried and convicted in Wake County District Court on Friday.

Al McSurely, the lawyer representing Muhammad, gave immediate notice of plans to appeal the verdict to Wake County Superior Court.

The trial, which lasted most of Friday, offered a glimpse of the video evidence and arguments that prosecutors plan to employ as more than 900 Moral Monday cases make their way through the courts.

It also offered a glance at defense strategies and the strengths and weaknesses in the state’s cases.

Muhammad was among 49 demonstrators arrested inside the N.C. Legislative Building on May 13, wearing a yellow armband like many of the protesters to symbolize the “rising of labor like the sun.”

On that Monday evening, nearly 200 people crowded around the rotunda fountain on the second floor, outside the doors of the chamber where the state House was doing business.

The demonstrators were protesting tax plans, education policies, health care proposals, welfare cuts, environmental regulations and new voting policies.

Details of arrest

Muhammad, who took the stand in his defense, said he joined the rally that night to protest a specific state law that he thought would be harmful to labor. He was not happy with new policies adopted by the Republican-led General Assembly, and he wanted to voice his frustrations.

That day, Muhammad had gone to a meeting organized by the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People before heading to the legislative building with a crowd of people as upset as he was about the agenda of the lawmakers.

They gathered outside the building, then went through the front doors into what many of the demonstrators called “the people’s house,” and sang, chanted and raised their voices.

General Assembly police used bullhorns to tell the protesters to quiet down. “You have five minutes to leave,” General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver called out to protesters. That night, 49 women and men were arrested.

Muhammad was charged with second-degree trespassing, failure to disperse on command and posting or displaying signs or placards in violation of building rules.

McSurely challenged the charges on multiple fronts Friday, but he was unsuccessful in persuading the judge that Muhammad was within his state and federal constitutional rights to speak out as he did against legislative policies he thought were damaging the state.

Prosecutor’s argument

Mary Elizabeth Wilson, the assistant Wake County district attorney assigned to the 940 cases stemming from the “Moral Monday” arrests, argued that Weaver, the police chief tasked with keeping peace inside the building, could order people to disperse and leave the state property if he had “reason to believe” there might be violent and risky behavior.

The judge agreed with the prosecutor’s argument, saying the officer must “reasonably believe disorderly conduct is occurring.”

That ruling and the rejections of arguments about constitutional violations opened the door for other convictions in those cases yet to be resolved.

At least 19 people have accepted plea deals offered by Wake District Attorney Colon Willoughby. The county’s chief prosecutor agreed to defer prosecution of people who did community service and paid $180 in court fees and fines.

Muhammad, who received his first criminal conviction Friday, was ordered to pay $100 fine.

After his hearing, he said he was troubled by the verdict.

“It’s not a good feeling when the Constitution is disregarded,” he said.

‘Judge shopping’ charge

McSurely said he was surprised to hear a judge in district court rule on constitutional issues. He disagreed with her interpretation of state law and the leeway it offered the police chief to decide who should and shouldn’t be in the building.

“They were saying, he has unfettered discretion,” McSurely said.

McSurely then went back inside the courtroom and asked Hamilton to recuse herself from his next cases stemming from the same demonstration. The evidence in those cases, he said, would be virtually the same as in the case she just ruled on, making it difficult for a different outcome.

“You have apparently already made a very important and factual decision,” McSurely said.

Wilson, the prosecutor who won the day, accused McSurely of judge-shopping and argued that the judge should not recuse herself.

“I’m not judge-shopping,” McSurely said. “I just don’t see how you can go against this judgment after you’ve already made it.”

Lawyers representing other demonstrators were at the daylong hearing.

Irv Joyner, one of those attorneys, said the decisions might prompt some changes in strategy.

“It’s something we’ll have to talk about,” he said.

Blythe: 919-836-4948
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