A well-known Baltimore activist was found guilty Tuesday of failing to obey an order from law enforcement while protesting the December mistrial of a Baltimore police officer charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray — a conviction his attorneys promised to fight through appeal.
Kwame Rose, 21 — who was referred to interchangeably in court by that name and his legal name, Darius Rosebrough —was also found not guilty of three other charges stemming from the same incident: obstructing vehicle traffic in front of the courthouse, obstructing pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk and disturbing the peace by using a bull horn.
Rose was arrested outside the downtown Circuit Court building on Dec. 16, after a 12-member jury failed to reach a consensus on the four counts, including manslaughter, filed against Baltimore Police Officer William Porter in Gray's death.
District Judge Jack Lesser, who presided over the bench trial, imposed on Rose a $500 fine plus court fees. In doing so, he rejected a request by prosecutor Paul W. O'Connor, chief of the Baltimore State's Attorney's District Court division, that Rose be placed on probation for a year.
Lesser said "emotions were obviously running high" during the protest, and that Rose may have been acting in what he "thought was a lawful manner." However, his decision to continue talking on a bull horn while a sheriff's deputy was giving orders on his own bull horn for the crowd to disperse "could have caused a major problem in front of the court house," Lesser said, and was in violation of the law.
At times during the proceedings, as a 25-minute video of the protest played, Rose watched himself shouting sharp criticisms of the very legal system in which he now found himself ensnared. "We're not breaking any laws! We're not obstructing anybody!" he shouted as sheriff's deputies tried to disperse people. Then, "We have constitutional rights!"
Other familiar chants heard during protests across Baltimore in recent months also bounced around the courtroom as the video played: "All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray!" and "Black lives matter!"
O'Connor put two sheriff's deputies on the stand to explain their interactions with Rose that day, and argued that his actions were in clear violation of reasonable restrictions on protesters that had been set forth and clearly articulated by law enforcement. "There's no question that the message was conveyed to [Rose] that he could not use a bull horn," O'Connor said.
Kenneth W. Ravenell, Rose's attorney, put the man who shot the video of the protest, Austin Dalton, and another protester, Megan Kenny, on the stand to discuss what they saw that day. Using the footage and their testimony, he painted a vastly different picture of Rose as a protest leader watching out for others and advising them not to block traffic lanes. Kenny and Dalton testified that Rose had stayed out of traffic.
At one point, Ravenell asked Kenny whether she had ever seen images of Martin Luther King Jr. using a bull horn. O'Connor quickly raised an objection to the line of questioning, which Lesser sustained.
Gray, 25, died after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in the back of a police transport van in April. Six Baltimore police officers were charged in his arrest and death on May 1. The case spurred widespread protests against police brutality. Porter, the first and only officer to to go trial to date, is set to be retried this summer. The other cases are also pending. All of the officers have pleaded not guilty.
After Lesser's ruling, Ravenell said he will be appealing Rose's conviction in Circuit Court within the next 30 days, which could lead to a new jury trial.
Ravenell said the evidence in the case showed that Rose "was being treated differently" than everyone else in front of the courthouse that day, including members of the media, and that he "should not have any imposition of any sentence in this case."
David Rocah, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland who is also representing Rose, said Lesser's decision to find Rose guilty of disobeying a lawful order was "both factually and legally incorrect" and "inconsistent" with the First Amendment's protection of free speech.
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"It's crystal clear that the conduct that Kwame and the other protesters were engaged in is peaceful political protest," Rocah said. "That is at the very core and heart of what the First Amendment protects, and nothing that they did violated any law."
Rocah said the order to disperse "was not a lawful order because, as the judge himself specifically found, there was nothing unlawful about the protest."
In a brief statement outside the courthouse, Rose thanked Ravenell and the ACLU for "stepping up" and representing him.
"We'll continue this fight in court," he said, "and I'll continue to protest and advocate that other people's rights to peacefully protest won't be hindered in the future."