Judge recuses himself from Black Lives Matter court hearing
www.pressherald.com/2017/04/03/black-lives-matter-protesters-officials-try-again-fail-to-reach-agreement/By Randy Billings Staff Writer
A court hearing for 17 Black Lives Matter protesters arrested last summer was cut short on Monday after the presiding judge immediately recused himself at the request of a defense attorney.
The shocking development came during defense attorney Thomas Hallett's aggressive cross-examination of Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Ackerman. Hallett's line of questioning suggested that Ackerman committed an ethical violation for insisting on meeting with the protesters during a restorative justice proceeding without formally notifying all of the defense attorneys.
Justice Paul Fritzsche sustained an objection from Assistant District Attorney Amanda Doherty about the relevance of the line of questions during the hearing, which was supposed to determined whether the 17 protesters, arrested on July 15 for blocking a portion of Commercial Street, fulfilled their contractual obligation.
That prompted a testy exchange with Hallett, who said he was "deeply disturbed" with the judge's decision. Fritzsche responded in kind, saying he was also "deeply disturbed" in Hallett's behavior.
Hallett then asked the judge recuse himself from the proceedings, and Fritzsche granted it immediately, leaving the attorneys stunned and the Black Lives Matters protesters and nearly two dozen supporters ecstatic.
The court is expected to reschedule the hearing before a different judge.
"I have never seen anything like that," District Attorney Stephanie Anderson said. "I think it was very disrespectful conduct by the (defense) attorney and very disrespectful conduct of the people in the courtroom."
Outside the courtroom, Hallett said that Fritzsche was a "friend and good judge." He said Fritzsche's quick decision to recuse himself was "pretty unusual."
"(Fritzsche) was upset with me, and I guess I understand that to a certain extent," Hallett said. "I was not entirely following his directions. In the long run I had just felt that things had gotten out of hand."
Fritzsche had ruled that the protesters waived their rights to an attorney by agreeing to the restorative justice proceeding, knowing their attorneys would not be present and that state prosecutors would be there. He further said that his experience with civil rights groups indicated that they like to feel empowered during negotiations and often give their attorneys a secondary role.
Hallett said he was upset that the judge was using information gleamned beyond the court hearing to justify his position, rather than relying on the recording being built by attorneys. He also argued that the defendants could not waive Ackerman from her ethical obligations to receive permission from defense attorneys to speak to their clients without them present.
Before the hearing got underway Monday, Fritzsche asked both sides to come up with an agreement that would allow the restorative justice process to resume. He implored both sides to discuss their concerns with each other in an effort to reach a common understanding and move forward in a more productive way, fearing that a hearing would on exacerbate tensions between the group and the police.
A previous restorative justice meeting that had been planned in February between Portland police and the protesters arrested last summer during a Black Lives Matter protest was called off at the last minute after the two sides could not agree on how the meeting should proceed - in two groups held separately, or as one - and who should be allowed to observe the process. The district attorney's office attempted to enforce part of the agreement to divide the protesters into two sessions; the protesters wanted to remain together.
The protesters also objected to the presence of an observer from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, and to the presence of Rachel Talbot Ross, a state legislator and head of the local chapter of the NAACP. The protesters asked her to leave.
After that session failed, the state refiled the charges.
On Monday the protesters insisted on moving forward with the hearing. Hallett said the hearing was important to the protesters because they felt the justice system does not listen to people of color.