This past year has changed the way 16-year-old Ryan Lang looks at the criminal justice system.
A masons apprentice, Lang was recently acquitted in Washtenaw County Circuit Court on a felony riot charge stemming from last years Ku Klux Klan rally in downtown Ann Arbor.
"That innocent until proven guilty thing isnt always true," says Lang, who was found not guilty by a jury that deliberated for less than an hour June 4. As the first of 20 felony and misdemeanor cases growing out of the anti-Klan protest to be decided by a jury, his verdict boosts an effort to have all the charges dropped. Its a drive that questions both the Klans right to free speech and Ann Arbors efforts to protect that right.
On May 9, 1998, a KKK contingent at City Hall was fenced in for its own protection while hundreds of state, county and city law enforcement officers tried to control an enormous crowd of protesters, some of whom threw bottles and rocks toward the Klan and police. Approximately $4,000 worth of property damage resulted, including broken windows at City Hall, and a few people received minor injuries. Police eventually dispersed the crowd using tear gas.
Lang was one of 10 defendants facing felony charges, carrying up to 10 years in prison for adults. Because he was tried as a juvenile, Lang faced possible imprisonment until his 21st birthday.
More than 6,000 people have signed a petition asking prosecutors to drop charges against the protesters. Lawyers for the protesters say the charges are extreme and based on flimsy or nonexistent evidence.
Some protesters and their supporters say the prosecutions are a politically motivated witch-hunt meant to distract people from the underlying issue: whether the Klan should have been allowed to rally in Ann Arbor in the first place, given, they say, that such rallies are part of the white supremacists attempts to organize for "racist murder."
The price tag
Last years rally cost taxpayers $137,000, much of which went to law enforcement officers overtime, Ann Arbor Police Sgt. Michael Logghe says.
Ann Arbor must protect the Klans free speech, says Washtenaw Prosecutors office spokesman Joseph Burke: "Even some hateful statements are protected by the First Amendment."
Tom Schram, spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, agrees, saying both the KKK and counter-demonstrators had the right to express their views at the rally.
"Where we draw the line is with illegal conduct," he says. "Certainly there are elements in the Klan that do things that are illegal, but they have a right to express their opinions, as terrible as those opinions are. There are some people who believe they dont have a right to express their opinions, and those people have a right to their opinions too."
Logghe says some protesters went beyond free speech when they damaged property, incited others to riot or rioted themselves.
The movement asking Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackies office to drop the charges against the protesters claims the backing of several notables from local officials to union leaders to lawyers to state representatives including Detroits LaMar Lemmons.
Says petition signer Geoffrey Fieger, "Brian Mackie doesnt understand the meaning of prosecutorial discretion."
"If anyone has got a right to protest, against the Klan is a good place to start," he adds.
Asked about the petition and Fiegers comments, Mackie says his offices prosecutions arent dictated by popular opinion, and that he will let the courts decide the fate of those charged.
Defense lawyer Miranda Massie contends that Langs case, and the quickly returned verdict, "reveals much about the overall character of these prosecutions."
"Theres no limit to what theyll do to get convictions without any evidence at all," she says. "These prosecutions are an embarrassment to the entire judicial system."
Of Langs case, Mackie says, "There was evidence. The jury chose not to convict."
The outcome apparently turned on pictures of Lang at the rally, one of which prosecutors claimed showed him throwing a rock, although it is impossible to see whether there was anything in his hand. The defense argued that the picture, seen in isolation, was misleading.
Lang says the 1998 rally was the first time hed been to such a protest. Some of his friends would not attend last years rally, he recalls, because they knew several demonstrators were arrested in 1996 after that rally turned violent. A Klan leaders wife was hit by a rock, and others were injured.
He says that at first he was just going along with the crowd, but as the rally went on and he listened to the Klan, he became "kind of pissed off," and ended up entering a restricted area and being videotaped by police.
The Detroit-based National Womens Rights Organizing Coalition, a self-described militant antiracist group, played an active role in both years protests, but Lang says he knew nothing of NWROC before the 1998 rally. After he was charged, the groups lawyers offered to represent him. "I didnt know what to do," he says. "I couldnt afford a lawyer or anything."
A hearing set for Friday (July 16) in state district court will determine whether prosecutors have enough evidence to try the nine people charged with misdemeanor property damage. Another defendant, who is charged with misdemeanor assault and battery, is expected to go to trial in late August. The defense has requests pending for the dismissal of the remaining nine felony charges, which are set for trial in September and October.
"People are entitled to a fair trial," Mackie says. "While the defense may want to try their case in the media, prosecutors are held to higher standard of ethics."
Though he hopes otherwise, Logghe says he expects the Klan to eventually return to Ann Arbor.
"Ann Arbor the most liberal city in Michigan. Thats where theyre going to get the reaction and national press, which is exactly what the Klan is after," he says. "I wish some of the protesters could see that."
Meanwhile, Lang is free to enjoy the summer without worrying about spending five years behind bars.
But he says the whole thing from the prosecutions to the money the city spent to protect the Klan at the rally leaves a bad taste in his mouth.
"All that," he asks, "so some people can come in and scream some racist hate?"
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