PORTLAND, Maine — A judge recused himself Monday from ruling in a hearing over reinstating criminal charges against 17 Black Lives Matter protesters arrested last summer.
Retired Superior Court Justice Paul Fritzsche’s decision to step down at the request of defense attorney Tom Hallett took both sides of the case off guard. It followed a series of testy exchanges in which Fritzsche accused Hallett of grandstanding and the lawyer suggested that the judge had allowed outside information to color his opinion of the case.
Hallett said that the judge appeared to be using information gathered outside of the hearing to justify sustaining an objection from Assistant District Attorney Amanda Doherty.
“I’ve never had a judge so gladly get off a case,” said Hallett, who represents Alba Briggs.
Fritzsche’s decision was greeted by cheers from the protesters assembled in courtroom. It adds another twist to the already unusual legal proceedings that have come out of Portland police arresting 18 protesters, including one minor, who shut down an otherwise busy downtown intersection for hours last July as a show of solidarity with black men killed by police across the county.
The Monday hearing was over whether the District Attorney could again prosecute misdemeanor charges against the protesters after a plea agreement they had struck late last year went to shambles in February. The court is expected to rescheduled the hearing with a different judge.
A condition of the deal, which would have seen the charges dropped, was that the protesters sit down to talk over their differences with Portland police in a so-called restorative justice session. The dialogue would have been the first time that this alternative approach to justice was used in a Maine civil disobedience case, but it fell apart when the protesters and Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Ackerman failed to agree over logistics.
On Monday, Fritzsche first tried to get the two sides to find a way to move ahead with the dialogue session, citing the need to try to heal racial wounds that date back to slavery.
“It is absolutely clear on a nationwide basis, and to a lesser extent here in Cumberland County, that there is a degree of mistrust between some police [departments] and some police officers and some people in the African American community, in particular young men,” said Fritzsche.
At the judge’s instruction, the 17 protesters, their gaggle of lawyers and the representatives of the state, were briefly shut in the courtroom to try to hash out a way to move forward with the dialogue session. But when those talks failed to produce an agreement, the court instead proceeded with hearing arguments over reinstating the charges.
The scene in the Portland courtroom during the hearing was unusually boisterous, with people chatting and snapping their fingers to mark approval when a lawyer appeared to score a rhetorical victory. During a brief recess, a group of protesters, dressed all it black, laughed together at an illustration one had done of the court proceedings while the lawyers conferred and talked over what had happened with their clients.
In the witness stand, Ackerman testified that she had gradually come around to the idea of taking a restorative justice approach after hearing the district attorney for Ferguson, Missouri, speak at a conference. As she presented it, the protesters had refused to be split into two groups for the dialogue session, which she called off after it became apparent that they weren’t going to cooperate.
In an objection, Hallett called Ackerman’s recollection of meeting with the Ferguson district attorney “just a bit self-serving.” He argued in cross examination that Ackerman had unilaterally imposed conditions on the dialogue session that were not part of the protesters’ written agreement with the prosecutor.
In a heated line of questioning, Hallett said that the protesters had not agreed to Ackerman or representatives of the ACLU of Maine and local chapter of the NAACP being present. He asked if the district attorney had invited the latter group “just because of [the protesters’] skin color?”
Shortly after this exchange, Fritzsche told Hallett he was “deeply disturbed that you are marketing and posturing on behalf of your clients” and then agreed to recuse himself.
Outside the courtroom Hallett called Fritzsche “a friend and a good judge.”
“He was upset with me, and I guess I understand that to a certain extent,” said the lawyer.