CLINTON — A state judge on Wednesday again denied a black defendant's request to move his trial from the East Feliciana Parish courthouse because of the Confederate statue that stands outside, which his attorney called a symbol against justice that would inhibit a fair trial.
Niles Haymer, the attorney for Ronnie Anderson, asked District Judge Kathryn "Betsy" Jones to reconsider the implication of the statue on his client. He referenced the decision on Tuesday by voters across Louisiana to overturn the state's amendment that allowed nonunanimous juries to convict people of felonies — which was created to disenfranchise black jurors and has been proven to disproportionately affect black defendants.
"Yesterday, we gave a blow to Jim Crow ... and today, we can do the same thing," Haymer said. "The Confederacy never stood for justice, your honor."
But Jones said she did not find the argument relevant to the case at hand. In August, she had denied the same plea from Haymer on a technicality — the motion was not filed in time. However, following that hearing, prosecutors pressed a new charge against his client, so Haymer was able to again raise the issue.
“I don’t question whether some people find it offensive or not, but whether they find it offensive or they can get a fair trial are two different matters," Jones said in her ruling. "I can assume Mr. Anderson will get a full and fair hearing."
But Haymer said he won't hesitate to file the same motion as the case proceeds, perhaps during jury selection, and Jones agreed that, if it's appropriate, she will consider it again. Haymer argued that calling the Confederate statute "just a piece of granite," as Jones had in August, fell woefully short.
“It is more than a piece of granite … to Mr. Anderson, many other African-Americans and other races, it is a symbol of oppression," Haymer said. "We wouldn’t refer to the American flag as just a piece of red, white and blue cloth. It stands for something; it’s a symbol of freedom."
Jones, however, also pointed out that only the American flag, a Louisiana state flag and a broken clock adorn the inside of the parish's courtroom, which is on the second floor of the courthouse in Clinton, the oldest continuously operated courthouse in the state. She said the Confederate statute outside stays there, as would any other potentially offensive item, like a sign or banner.
“The Police Jury of East Feliciana Parish owns this courthouse square, and whether that statue stays or goes is (its decision)," Jones said.
However, Jones later granted a motion to suppress statements made by the defendant before he was read his Miranda rights, which Haymer called the main piece of evidence against his client.
Anderson is charged with illegal possession of a stolen firearm, stemming from a November 2017 traffic stop for speeding, when a Wilson police officer found a gun in his vehicle. That firearm turned up stolen from Livingston Parish, his arrest report says. Before the officer read him his rights, Anderson allegedly admitted to possessing the firearm — but now, that evidence can no longer be brought up.
However, Haymer's motion to dismiss the entire case was denied, meaning the case will move forward. It is set to go to trial in February.
Haymer said the way the entire incident has been handled — from arrest to court hearings — is why he wanted to move the case from beyond East Feliciana Parish.
At first, Anderson was wrongfully charged with felon in possession of a firearm, though his felony conviction was more than 10 years old, Haymer said. He also said he was appalled with the quality of the police reports from the incident, riddled with spelling and punctuation errors, as well as a lack of evidence. And then walking into the courthouse, seeing that statue was the last straw, Haymer said.
"He's an example of the defendants in the Felicianas. No one should have their life hung in balance because of this," Haymer said, pointing to the arrest report. He said he doesn't think any other prosecutor would move forward with such a case.
But East Feliciana Parish District Attorney Sam D’Aquilla said despite some challenges, he thinks there is enough evidence in the case.
"It's pretty strong," D'Aquilla said. "The gun wasn't suppressed; the only thing that was suppressed was the statement."