The judge set to rule on whether a Pasadena man committed a hate crime when he placed a noose outside a school window in Crofton said Tuesday it “should be a crime” but warned that his ruling could have far-reaching consequences.
Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Paul F. Harris Jr. lamented that Maryland law is unclear and called on the General Assembly to explicitly spell out what constitutes a hate crime.
He said that as currently defined in the state, a hate crime must be committed against a “person” and not a group as prosecutors allege, putting the statute at the center of the trial.
“I wonder why our General Assembly has not taken up that issue,” Harris said.
There was no doubt during the two-day trial in Annapolis that John Havermann, 19, placed a noose at Crofton Middle School on May 11. He was caught on video with Conner Prout, 19, of Crofton, walking onto school grounds around 1 a.m. with a backpack, a rope tied into a noose and then using a pallet to climb on top of the roof with Prout to hang it.
Prout pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor hate crime without admitting the noose was hung to intimidate African-Americans. Havermann pleaded not guilty.
Tuesday, Harris found Havermann guilty of two trespassing charges but put off ruling on misdemeanor hate crime charges until both sides submit written arguments within 14 days. He said he would rule within a week of their filings, but cautioned against expecting any verdict that doesn’t strictly fit the hate crime statute.
“Keep in mind, I can’t rewrite the law,” Harris said. “I have a lot of gray areas here.”
State’s Attorney Wes Adams has argued that Havermann, in committing the crimes of disorderly conduct and disturbing school operations, did so by acting in a way a reasonable person would understand would upset African-Americans.
He also focused on the school’s staffing. It is the only one of five schools in a half-mile area with a black principal.
And Adams has said that the noose was placed outside the window of a black teacher, even though Havermann and Prout had to pass by several easier-to-reach locations to hang the noose.
During closing arguments Tuesday, the prosecutor pushed back against arguments that he should have named individuals as Havermann’s victims.
He said a “person” can also be understood in case law to be an “association,” which he argued the black students and faculty at Crofton Middle can be considered. They are a “group of people” who gather for “some special purpose or business.”
“We’re talking about a legal technicality,” Adams said.
Havermann’s defense attorney, David Putzi, questioned both Adams’ “hyperbole” and “fog” of “the racial overtones of this case” as well as his “legal technicality” argument.
“I suppose one person’s legal technicality is another person’s reading of the law,” Putzi said.
Adams had stretched the interpretation of state law, he said, and prosecutors failed to prove any motive or intent on Havermann’s part.
Prosecutors presented a number of black employees at the school to testify about the impact of the noose. Putzi argued that was confusing the effect of the incident with Havermann’s intent. Putzi and the judge have also said the noose could’ve been meant to target Hispanic or Jewish students.
“What proof is there in this situation that African-American students were targeted?” Putzi said.
Inside the courtroom, members of local advocacy groups filled the seats as they watched Adams make his closing arguments.
Carl Snowden, leader of the Caucus of African-American Leaders in Annapolis and a guest columnist for The Capital, was escorted out of the courtroom after he and Yasmin Jameson, founder of Anne Arundel Indivisible, were confronted by a bailiff for allegedly using their cell phones during the trial.
Cell phone use is forbidden in court proceedings in Maryland unless specifically allowed by the presiding judge.