Scott Holmes, the defense attorney of choice for those in the Triangle who get arrested protesting racism and poverty, strolled into the courtroom on the first floor of the Orange County Courthouse on Monday morning.
He turned and waved, smiling widely at his client, a newly minted UNC-Chapel Hill graduate named Julia Pulawski, along with her mother and about a dozen supporters sitting in the back two rows. He made friendly banter with the prosecutors and other defense attorneys. In the collegial spirit of officers of the court, they acquitted themselves as advocates who might wage a fierce battle during trial, but then shake hands after the verdict. If any deal were to be brokered, it would be now, as they waited for Superior Court Judge James P. Hill to emerge from his chambers.
Holmes and Assistant District Attorney Billy Massengale sat together on the bench behind the defense table. They bantered as if reminiscing about a particularly memorable case over a friendly pint at the brewpub.
“I held her in the air for 10 seconds!” Holmes exclaimed, mimicking UNC police Sgt. Svetlana Bostelman, Massengale’s star witness in State v. Pulawksi. “Or maybe it was eight seconds.”
Massengale grinned and nodded, not conceding but in the most agreeable way possible.
Bostelman testified during a district court trial in January that she’d seen Pulawski hitting and kicking another UNC officer, Sgt. Burnett, during a Sept. 8, 2018 protest near the former site of the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam. Then, Bostelman had told the lower-court judge that she tried to “peel” Pulawski off Burnette. Since Pulawski was bigger than her, Bostelman said she reached around her torso and took her to the ground to bring her under control. That was when, Bostelman said, Pulawski elbowed and kicked her four or five times during the 10-second span she held her in the air.
A motion to dismiss filed by Holmes subsequent to Pulawski’s conviction on two counts of assaulting an officer cites video evidence showing that Sgt. Burnett was occupied with arresting another protester and Pulawski was not close enough to assault him when Sgt. Bostelman grabbed her around the waist. Burnett also testified under oath that he did not remember Pulawski assaulting him or even feel any hitting or kicking. Also contradicting Bostelman’s testimony that she took Pulawski to the ground, a separate video clip shows a white male officer — not Bostelman — grabbing Pulawski around the neck and taking her to the ground.
Other video taken of the melee, which resulted in the arrests of eight antiracists, shows police charging into the crowd and throwing at least two protesters to the ground. The confrontation began when police suddenly arrested a man suspected of deploying a smoke device, prompting antiracists to angrily demand an explanation before tensions between police and protesters escalated. Three defendants have had charges dismissed and a fourth has been found not guilty. Massengale dismissed a charge of resisting arrest against Jaya Athavale, citing as the reason that the “officer who was resisted cannot be identified.” Similarly, the prosecutor dismissed a resisting charge against Christopher David Wells on the basis that “charging officer cannot ID officer who was resisted” and “unable to identify essential witness.” The third defendant, Joseph Baldoni Karlik, had his charges of resisting an officer and failing to disperse dismissed after completing 24 hours of community service last month. And a district court judge found a fourth antiracist, Jody Anderson, not guilty of assault on an officer, after the supposed victim testified that he didn’t feel anything.
Among the four remaining defendants, Pulawski and Joshua Mascharka are appealing guilty verdicts. Brandon Webb, who was accused to setting off the smoke device, was found guilty. And Jayna Fishman, who was accused of spitting on an officer, was granted deferred prosecution in exchange for pleading guilty.
Far from the evidence establishing that antiracist students are violent, many students charge that the Sept. 8, 2018 protest is a case study in police violence.
As James Sadler, a doctoral student at the School of Education and former high school teacher, wrote on Twitter last September: “When scenes had calmed down and the protest was practically over after neo-Confederates left, the police started a riot by tackling a protester. This eventually led to a conflict where police were arbitrarily pushing, tackling and arresting protesters.”
After conferring with Massengale on Monday, attorney Holmes stepped into the gallery to update the defendants and their supporters. He told Pulawski and Mascharka their cases will be added to the trial calendar on Oct. 7, adding that there’s a good chance they’ll be continued again. “The way it works is the oldest cases go first,” he said. “That’s how backed up the system is.”
Holmes has filed a motion to dismiss charges against Pulawski, to suppress evidence and for court sanction of Sgt. Bostelman. Before entering the court, Pulawski called for Bostelman’s firing during a brief statement to the press.
UNC Police Chief Jeff McCracken, who has announced that he will retire in July, publicly countered Holmes’ accusation that Bostelman gave false testimony in Pulawski’s trial, writing in an op-ed published in The Daily Tar Heel that “the validity of the officer’s testimony has been reviewed by the district attorney’s office and determined to have been truthful.”
Still, on Monday, the district attorney dismissed the assault charge against Pulawski based on the assertion that she assaulted Sgt. Burnett. If Bostelman’s testimony wasn’t credible with regards to the alleged assault on Sgt. Burnett, how could it hold weight when it comes to the alleged assault on herself?