SoniaFountainJones

From left, Krystal Sonia, Deon Fountain, Kiara Jones

Three members of the New Black Panther Party were convicted Tuesday on misdemeanor charges stemming from a 2017 protest outside Baton Rouge police headquarters the night before federal officials announced they wouldn't charge two white officers involved a year earlier in the killing of Alton Sterling, a black man.

Krystal L. Sonia, of Houston, and Deon M. Fountain and Kiara Jones, both of Baton Rouge, were found guilty by state District Judge Bonnie Jackson of simple obstruction of a highway — Airline Highway.

Sonia, 47, also was convicted on resisting an officer and illegal carrying of a weapon — a loaded .38-caliber revolver — and Jones, 22, was additionally found guilty of resisting an officer.

Jackson put all three women — who were dressed in black clothing and black footwear — on probation for six months and ordered them to perform community service.

Sonia and Jones also were arrested during earlier protests in Baton Rouge immediately after the July 5, 2016, shooting death of Sterling, 37, outside the Triple S Food Mart. Sonia and Jones weren't prosecuted for those arrests.

Some 200 people were arrested in the 2016 protests, during which military-style equipment was used by law enforcement officers.

The May 2017 arrests of Sonia, Fountain and Jones came the night before the U.S. Department of Justice announced that federal charges would not be filed against Baton Rouge police officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II in the Sterling shooting. Salamoni is the officer who shot Sterling.

Earlier this month, Salamoni, who had been fired, was allowed to resign without back pay. Lake's appeal of his three-day suspension will be before the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board on Sept. 16.

Sonia and Fountain were tried together Tuesday, followed by a separate trial for Jones.

Baton Rouge police Sgt. David Kennedy testified at the trial of Sonia and Fountain that he observed the women dressed in dark clothes protesting in the middle of Airline Highway near Goodwood Boulevard about 11:30 p.m. May 2, 2017.

"It was incredibly dangerous," he said, noting that one 18-wheeler had to navigate around the protesters to avoid hitting them.

Kennedy said Sonia and Fountain were arrested after they refused to leave the roadway.

Their attorney, Gregory Payton, argued to Jackson that the women had a constitutional right to peacefully and lawfully protest, and that the evidence was insufficient to determine whether they had broken the law.

Prosecutor April Leon said the women created a public safety concern for themselves, other protesters and motorists.

Sonia complained while Jackson sentenced her that she felt persecuted by law enforcement that night.

"There were over 20 white people in the street. They were never arrested," Sonia said.

At Jones' trial, Baton Rouge Police Cpl. Jessie Barcelona testified that Jones was "very hostile" that night, screaming and yelling and waving a Black Panther flag in the roadway.

Barcelona also said Jones intentionally spit in another officer's face.

Jones, who testified in her own defense, denied obstructing traffic, waving a flag or spitting at the officer.

Jackson said the evidence showed some 50 people protested near police headquarters for hours that night with no police intervention, but the protests only became an issue when some protesters took to the street and refused to leave the road.

"Some people chose not to … because they wanted to provoke a confrontation," Jackson told Jones.

The judge said she respects Jones' passion but said dialogue is the key to resolving disputes.

"What is anger changing?" Jackson asked. "Nothing. Absolutely nothing."

Jones was acquitted of battery on a police officer. Fountain was found not guilty of resisting an officer.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III refused to prosecute about half of the 200 people arrested in 2016 during a weekend of demonstrations after Sterling's death.

Ninety-two of the people arrested filed a class action lawsuit against the city and law enforcement for excessive force, wrongful arrests and violating demonstrators' civil rights. State Police, Baton Rouge police, the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney's Office and the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office all settled for a total of $100,000.

The Baton Rouge Police Department has since signed a good faith agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union and a north Baton Rouge community group outlining how both the police and protesters are expected to behave in the event of protests.

The agreement spells out that protesters can't block roads, engage in violence or damage property. If protesters want to demonstrate in a roadway, they have to apply for a permit.

Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.