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Crime & Justice

District Attorney Begins Dropping Charges From 2020 Protests

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Mecklenburg County District Attorney's Office
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Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather

Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather had started dismissing charges from the 2020 protests in Charlotte. The dismissals come nearly nine months after protesters filled the streets of Charlotte last May and June, and after local defense attorneys pushed the district attorney to move the cases along.

WFAE's Nick de la Canal spoke with WFAE's "Morning Edition" host Marshall Terry about what he's learned following this story.

Marshall Terry: Nick, can you catch us up to speed? Take us back to the protests of last summer and tell us how many of these arrests took place.

Nick de la Canal: Right, so for two weeks, we had nightly protests happening around Charlotte. This was from May 29 to June 10. And over the course of those two weeks, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police arrested 132 people.

Ten of them were charged with felonies, including breaking and entering and inciting a riot. One hundred twenty people — or most everyone else — were charged with misdemeanors or civil infractions. That includes failure to disperse and resisting a public officer. Those were the two most common charges.

We also saw people charged with carrying concealed guns, assault on a government official, impeding traffic, disorderly conduct, a whole range of charges.

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Nick de la Canal
Haywood McCree was arrested at protest on May 31, 2020 and charged with failure to disperse and resisting a public officer -- the two most common charges brought against the 2020 protesters. He wants like to fight the charges, but has yet to have his case brought up in court. "Even though COVID is going on, and I understand that the courts are bottlenecked right now, you got to let people live their lives," he said.

Terry: And that was nine months ago. How many of these cases have been stuck in legal limbo ever since?

De la Canal: Well, a lot of them. And like a lot of things these days, you can place some of the blame on COVID-19. The Mecklenburg County court system has suspended all nonessential court activities during the pandemic, and that includes court hearings for most misdemeanor cases.

So those 10 people charged with felonies — their cases have been moving through the court system, but most everyone else has just been sitting around waiting for their cases to get before a judge.

Terry: So their charges have been sitting on their records for nine months. What have defense attorneys been saying?

De la Canal: Well, they've been saying that a lot of these charges should get dismissed either due to lack of evidence or because protesters were exercising their First Amendment rights.

In fact, a group of six defense attorneys sent a letter earlier this month to the district attorney urging him to dismiss at least some of the less-serious charges. They argued that allowing these charges to sit for months can be a real hindrance to those trying to find housing or jobs.

Terry: So explain the steps that the district attorney, Spencer Merriweather, is now taking.

De la Canal: So I got a tip this week that the D.A. had started to dismiss some of these charges. When I checked the status of these cases, I found that last Friday, Feb. 19, the D.A. dropped charges against 23 people arrested at the protests. They were all charged with either failure to disperse, resisting a public officer or disorderly conduct.

Also in late June and July of last year, three people charged with felonies had their charges dropped due to insufficient evidence, and two others had their misdemeanors charges dropped.

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Nick de la Canal
Taylor Marshall was arrested from a protest on July 25, 2020 and charged with assault on a government official. Her court date has been tentatively set for June 4, 2021. "It's practically a full year of wondering what's going to happen," she said, "(all while) affecting the jobs that I can apply for, possibly my housing situation once my lease is up in six months. And I know so many other people from this summer are feeling the same way."

Terry: Has the district attorney given a reason for why he's dropping these charges now?

De la Canal: Well, he hasn't said anything publicly, and he denied a request for an interview. However, in previous statements, his office has said this all goes back to COVID-19 and the partial court shutdown.

His office has said more than 100,000 cases piled up last year during the shutdown, and there isn't going to be enough time or resources to prosecute everyone.

So, they have to prioritize. His office says it likely will pursue cases involving damage to property and violence against others, but most other misdemeanor cases will likely get dropped.

Also, we should note that isn't just limited to last summer's protests. The D.A. also dismissed charges last Friday against 12 anti-abortion activists who were cited for violating mass gathering rules outside a women's clinic in east Charlotte last April.

Terry: So if my math is correct, you're saying the district attorney has dropped charges against 28 people arrested during the 2020 protests. How soon until his office gets to the other 100 or so people who still have pending charges?

De la Canal: We just don't know, Marshall. The D.A.'s office has refused to give a timeline, and as of yet, the courts still do not have a plan to resume full court operations anytime soon.

I'll also note that the 43 people arrested while camping out outside the Mecklenburg County jail in June — the majority of their cases are still pending as well.

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Corrected: February 26, 2021 at 8:41 AM EST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said 13 anti-abortion protesters were cited outside a women's clinic in April. There were 12.