Dionne Liles at a “99 Black Balloons” protest against COVID conditions at the Alamance County jail prior to her arrest on Sept. 8. (photo by Tony Crider)

Trials got underway on Wednesday for dozens of people arrested during protests in Graham over the summer and fall of 2020, with a visiting judge finding the first defendant not guilty of assaulting a law enforcement officer, but guilty of trespass and resisting arrest during a protest outside the county jail.

Dionne Liles, a 39-year-old entrepreneur who owns the Muse boutique, took the defense table in Alamance County court wearing a black T-shirt bearing the word “Wanted” and a depiction of Sheriff Terry Johnson. Representing herself, she explained to Judge Lunsford Long that she had joined a small group of protesters on Sept. 8 who walked a couple blocks from an Alamance County Commission meeting to the jail to protest the sheriff’s department’s handling of a COVID outbreak.

“We were amplifying the voices of people that were incarcerated,” Liles said, “and asking the sheriff and staff to have proper PPE on hand.

“We were going to demonstrate at the jail to let people know we’re out there for them,” she continued. “It’s my understanding — and it may be a misunderstanding — that we have a First Amendment right to protest on public property.”

Liles was arrested while raising a cardboard sign up and down and backing away from a deputy in a space between two vehicles in the jail parking lot.

In finding Liles guilty of trespass and resisting arrest, Judge Long offered her a prayer for judgement, which means she forfeits her right to appeal in exchange for receiving no penalty except $183 in court fees.

Andrew Crabtree and Morgan Carter, who faced charges for impeding traffic following their arrests at a Sept. 26 “We Are Still Here” march, also appeared in court on Wednesday. But Assistant District Attorney Kevin Harrison dismissed the case against Crabtree after the court heard testimony from the Alamance County deputy who made the arrest. Based on the deputy’s testimony, Harrison announced he was also dismissing the charge against Carter moments before their case was set for trial.

Eight additional protest-related cases were scheduled for Wednesday, with 30 others set to be heard over the next seven weeks, including Tomas Murawski, an Alamance News reporter charged with resisting a public officer while covering a peaceful march to the polls on Oct. 31.

Liles was one of four people who were arrested during the Sept. 8 COVID protest. The protests abruptly changed course when sheriff’s deputies tackled Nicholas Cassette to the ground and other protesters began loudly complaining about how he was being treated. Cassette is charged with misdemeanor riot, second degree trespass and resisting a public officer. His trial is scheduled for March 31.

Deputy James Michael Gionnatti testified that when protesters were seen walking into a parking lot at the corner of Elm and Maple streets, officers received instructions to move them to the sidewalk. Initially, Liles and the other protesters complied, but then Liles walked between two vehicles parked next to a grassy area alongside the sidewalk. Gionnatti testified that Liles advanced between the vehicles at the time Sheriff Johnson came out to observe the protest. Her sign read, “Terry Johnson is a grim reaper.”

“I told her to move to the sidewalk,” Gionnatti testified. “She gave me a quick look, but she was focused on the sheriff. I’ve seen the look before. I described it in my report as a ‘blank stare.’ It’s a very focused look. I associate it with people who become unpredictable and uncooperative.”

Gionnatti acknowledged that Liles was walking backwards as he advanced towards her and continuously ordered her to get on the sidewalk.

“The sign hit me one time; it didn’t register at first,” Gionnatti testified. “I snatched the sign and threw it over my head. Her eyes got big and she turned around and ran.”

Liles disputed crucial aspects of Gionnatti’s account while testifying in her defense.

“At no time did I strike the police officer,” Liles testified. She added that she did not notice Sheriff Johnson at the time, although she later reviewed a video of the incident in which Johnson appeared to instruct deputies to arrest her. Video that Liles showed the judge on her cell phone showed her chanting, “Let him go!” and she testified that her focus the entire time was on her friend.

“I would never have stepped off the grass and got between the vehicles had I not seen my friend being tackled to the ground,” she told Lunsford. “This was part of an uprising of people speaking out against people getting murdered by the police, particularly Black men.”

Nicholas Cassette was the first person arrested at the Sept. 8 protest against COVID conditions in the Alamance County jail. (photo by Anthony Crider)

During Gionnatti’s testimony, the judge expressed skepticism towards his claim that Liles assaulted him with her sign.

“You don’t feel like she intended to hurt you, do you?” he asked.

“Your honor, I have mixed feelings,” Gionnatti responded. “The blank stare, the focus she had and shaking the sign….”

The prosecutor argued that the protesters’ conduct was “causing prisoners to act out in the jail.” Gionnatti testified that the protesters chanted, “We love you,” and he could hear the incarcerated individuals answer by banging on the windows of the jail.

Harrison argued that the First Amendment didn’t give the protesters the right to be in the jail parking lot.

“The defendant is not out there to transact official business,” he said. “She has jeopardized people’s ability to move in and out of the parking spaces at the sheriff’s office. First Amendment rights were not denied because the public sidewalk is a traditional venue for expression.”

Judge Long said he had no doubt that Liles did not intend to strike Gionnatti with her sign, and without hesitation found her not guilty of assault on a law enforcement officer. He said he found the other charges more difficult to adjudicate, and recessed to research caselaw. When he returned after about 10 minutes, Long announced he was finding Liles guilty of second-degree trespass and resisting arrest on the basis that public property is subject to reasonable use limitations, and it’s up to the sheriff’s office to determine time and place restrictions on the use of its parking lot.

Liles said afterwards that she chose to represent herself, because “I did not break the law and I felt like I had the evidence to support that.”

She said she decided to accept a prayer for judgement because she wanted to avoid the time and expense of continued litigation and the risk that a superior court judge might impose a more severe penalty.

“I can take a guilty plea because I’m self-employed,” she said. “Other people don’t have that luxury.”

Another Alamance County deputy testified on Wednesday in the trial of Andrew Crabtree, who was blocking traffic to ensure the safety of protesters during the Sept. 26 “We’re Still Here” march. That night, protesters marched past the jail and then turned back towards Court Square, where a controversial Confederate monument stands sentry at the entrance of the Historic Courthouse. When they reached the courthouse, they were met with sheriff’s deputies in military-style flecktarn who were wielding batons as a drone buzzed overhead.

As activists gave speeches, a smaller group marched around the courthouse.

The deputy, who was a member of one of the field force teams, testified that the group took three or four minutes to cross the crosswalk on the south side of the Historic Courthouse.

“We were fine with him standing there to make sure they could cross,” the deputy testified. But he said Crabtree stayed in the crosswalk for an additional 15 seconds after the other protesters had already crossed.

Following the deputy’s testimony, Harrison abruptly dismissed the impeding traffic charge against Crabtree.

Based on the same officer’s testimony, Harrison notified the judge that he was also dismissing charges of impeding traffic and resisting arrest against Morgan Carter, who lives in Greensboro.

Following their release on bond on Sept. 26, Carter told Triad City Beat that they had crossed the street to check on Crabtree when they were arrested.

“Four or five heavily armed cops were rushing towards them and telling them to get out of the street,” they said. “As we were backing up and I was helping that person back up, one of the cops grabbed my arm, and two of them dragged me off by my backpack and my arm.”

In all, nine people were arrested during the Sept. 26 protest.

“I’m glad they dismissed,” Carter said on Wednesday. “It felt ridiculous. I should have been at work or in class today. I felt like they committed a crime against me.”

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