From his seat on the bench, Mecklenburg County’s senior Superior Court judge often wears what appears to be the slightest of smiles, befitting a man who has seen a lot during a legal career that spans three decades.
Thursday, Judge Robert Bell was not smiling.
A few feet away from the judge, murder defendant Deonte Lanier was reading a statement aloud, at first so quickly that the court reporter could not keep pace, then so slowly that he seemed to pause after every other word.
Lanier, accused of first-degree murder in the 2012 death of Johnny Peay, was declaring that because he considered himself a Moorish National, Bell held no authority in this matter, and the charges against him had no meaning. He read on.
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“Are you getting close to the end?” Bell asked, which drew snickers from Peay’s assembled loved ones.
Lanier said he was, so the judge allowed him to keep reading. The 25-year-old Charlotte man, with his court-appointed attorney Johneric Emehel standing beside him, praised Allah, described himself as a martyr, and offered his last will and testament for the court record.
After a few minutes more, Bell had heard enough.
You can make your sovereignty arguments “until the cows come home,” the judge told Lanier. “But you’re going to be tried.”
He offered Lanier some advice: Use your lawyer. In his years as a judge, Bell said, he had watched dozens of defendants act as their own attorneys. “To my knowledge, every one of them is in prison right now.”
He noted that Lanier’s sovereignty claims were undermined somewhat by the chain around his waist, the shackles binding his legs and the armed deputies standing around him. “You can engage in this behavior for as long as you like. In the end it is not going to change anything. If it makes you feel better, so be it. It’s absolute folly.”
The phenomenon of Moorish nationalism is becoming more familiar in courtrooms around the country. Under the movement’s tenets, local laws don’t need to be obeyed, and mortgages and other legal documents are seen as invalid. In several cases, Moorish nationals have moved into palatial homes, forging documents that allude to obscure treaties to justify their ownership. They also have been known to retaliate against officials who cross them by filing multimillion-dollar liens on their property.
After Bell cut him off, Lanier stood silently beside Emehel, refusing to answer most of the judge’s questions. Bell moved the hearing ahead, asking Emehel if his client wanted to enter a plea on the murder charges.
“Not guilty,” the attorney said.
Lanier perked up. Since he had refused to plea himself, “I take that as a dismissal,” he told Bell.
Nothing doing. The judge said he accepted the plea on Lanier’s behalf.
Bell’s courtroom. Bell’s rules.