Portland judge weighs decision on Black Lives Matter protesters

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PORTLAND — After a full day in court last week, 17 adult protesters arrested on Commercial Street last July were still waiting Tuesday to find out if they would have to stand trial.

The decision facing Judge Lance Walker in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Docket is rooted in the collapse of a Feb. 1 Restorative Justice session with defendants and Police Chief Michael Sauschuck that would have capped a plea agreement for the 17 members of the Portland Racial Justice Congress.

“They were there for Restorative Justice and they participated to the best of their ability,” attorney Tina Nadeau told Judge Lance Walker in her final argument to reject a motion by the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office to reinstate charges May 19.

“What is happening here is a little bit of buyer’s remorse,” Assistant District Attorney Amanda Doherty said in favor of the motion.

Idman Abdulkadir, Mariana Angelo, Alba Briggs, Sable Knapp, Kennedy Johnson, Caitlin Vaughan, Salma Hassan, Sarah Lazare, Nasreen Sheikyousef, Kennedy Barteaux, Shadiyo Hussain-Ali, Llewellyn Pinkerton, Leah Kravette, Benny Vanderburgh, and Jenessa Hayden, all of Portland; Karen Lane, of Auburn; and Lelia Saad, of South Portland were arrested July 15, 2016, after blocking Commercial Street near Pearl Street for three hours.

All were charged with obstructing a public way and failure to disperse after their demonstration of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Abdulkadir, Ali, Angelo, Briggs, Hassan, Lazare and Sheikyousef faced additional charges, including obstructing government administration and disorderly conduct.

In December, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Ackerman and defense attorneys, including Jon Gale, structured a deal requiring defendants to plead guilty to a civil disorderly conduct charge and pay $200, followed by a Restorative Justice session with mediator Fred Van Liew.

On May 18, with protesters audible outside the courthouse, defense attorneys argued the state added conditions to the meeting that jeopardized constitutional rights, including Ackerman’s intention to attend. 

Defendants also requested to meet as a whole group instead of two sessions because the groups were inadvertently split by racial composition. Each side detailed how the Feb. 1 meeting at First Parish Church broke down before District Attorney Stephanie Anderson called it off.

“We thought sticking together would be preferable,” said Briggs, the only defendant to testify.

A key phrase in the argument is “at the direction of the district attorney’s office,” which Ackerman and Anderson said defendants agreed to by signing documents before the session.

Defense attorneys said prosecutors were taking an open-ended view of that, especially by having Ackerman attend the sessions. They also alleged Anderson prematurely ended the meeting by arriving suddenly as the sides were beginning to work together.

“They were seated in a circle ready to proceed,” Gale said of the defendants. 

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Judge Lance Walker hears arguments May 19 in a Portland courtroom about reinstating charges against protesters arrested July 15, 2016.

Alba Briggs, the only defendant to testify May 19, said protesters arrested July 16, 2016, preferred to meet together Feb. 1 at a Restorative Justice meeting in Portland.

Defendants and supporters gather outside the Cumberland County Courthouse May 19 following a day-long hearing on whether charges against them should be reinstated. The defendants were arrested July 15, 2016.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.