August 5, 2021 2:28:08 pm
Written by Heather Murphy
Last summer, a video of a white man pinning a Black man to a tree near a lake in Indiana July 4 — as bystanders urge the white man and his friends to let the man go — generated national outrage.
The man pinned to the tree, a community activist named Vauhxx Booker, said that he had heard the men use racial slurs and threaten to “get a noose.” Later that month, after an extensive investigation of the confrontation by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, a prosecutor charged two of the white men with felony battery, criminal confinement and intimidation. Their cases have yet to go to trial.
Now, a special prosecutor has charged Booker with felony assault and misdemeanor trespassing for his role in the confrontation. At a news conference Monday, Booker and several representatives from the Monroe County chapter of the NAACP said that the prosecutor was retaliating against him for refusing to agree to mediation with Sean Purdy and Jerry Cox II, the two men arrested in the attack.
“There’s nothing more American than charging a Black man in his own attempted lynching,” Booker said Monday. He added that the land he was supposedly “trespassing” on was public property.
Booker and representatives from the local NAACP chapter are calling for the special prosecutor, Sonia Leerkamp, to resign.
Guy Loftman, chair of the branch’s Legal Redress Committee, said that Booker was the victim of a “vicious hate crime” that Fourth of July — a day Booker was planning to spend watching a lunar eclipse with friends at Lake Monroe, about 60 miles south of Indianapolis.
“Since then, the criminal justice system itself has joined in the attack on him,” Loftman said at the Monday news conference. “He faces up to 3 1/2 years in prison and $15,000 in fines for being subjected to a racist assault. This miscarried justice cannot be tolerated.”
Leerkamp, who is the special prosecutor in the separate felony cases against Booker, Purdy and Cox — declined to comment on why she had charged Booker more than a year after the confrontation.
“Mr. Booker is presumed innocent of any charges that have been filed,” she wrote in an email. “That being said, unlike Mr. Booker, I am ethically restrained from commenting upon the evidence prior to its presentation at trial. I am doing my best to apply the law to the facts and follow the principle that we are a nation of laws, not men.”
Court documents requesting an “impartial” special prosecutor that were filed last year by David R. Hennessy, a lawyer representing Purdy, cast Hennessy’s client as a “victim of battery” and Booker as the perpetrator.
“Mr. Booker has agitated others with the hope of being a victim and is seeking fame and fortune at the expense of people he victimized,” Hennessy wrote.
In an email Wednesday, Hennessy declined to comment on the new charges against Booker, but implied that Booker should have been arrested instead of merely issued a summons.
At a news conference about a week after the confrontation, Hennessy said that what happened in the moments that preceded the incendiary video differed considerably from Booker’s account. He said that the conflict began when Booker and his friends trespassed on private property. His clients were nice to Booker and even gave him a beer, he said. Later, Booker returned and falsely identified himself as a county commissioner, threatened to fine the group and intimidated Purdy’s girlfriend by pointing a finger in her face. Purdy was “afraid for her,” leading him to restrain Booker, who he said also hit him three times, Hennessy said.
No one denies that Purdy was wearing a cowboy hat with a Confederate symbol that day, but his lawyer insists that some of the most shocking parts of Booker’s account were invented.
“No talk of a noose,” Hennessy said. “No talk of a rope. No talk of a lynching. No ‘white power.’ You don’t have all the video. Booker said he survived this near lynching, yet he stays to videotape people as he race-baits them.”
At the news conference, Booker, the representatives from the local NAACP chapter and his lawyer all reiterated that the other side had been making the same bogus claims since last July about what happened. They are not aware of anything new the special prosecutor has uncovered. The only concrete development, they said, is that Leerkamp has been pressuring Booker to engage in a mediated resolution with the two men facing felony charges in the attack.
As The Washington Post reported Tuesday, Booker has said that he is not interested in mediation because he would have to sign a confidentiality agreement and publicly forgive the men, whose charges would be dropped.
Booker’s lawyer, Katharine Liell, who says she has been practicing criminal defense in Indiana for 30 years, called the development “unprecedented.”
“I have never seen a special prosecutor open a new case and file it against somebody a year later,” she said.
The report by the Department of Natural Resources highlights discrepancies in both what various parties said occurred and in their views of what is racist. Cox, for example, denied that his or any of his friends’ actions against Booker were “racially motivated.” But he admitted to using a vile phrase mocking Black people’s hair, which the NAACP referred to as a “racist taunt” in a statement last week.
In the report, the men accused of attacking Booker and their friends deny saying or hearing anything about a noose. In contrast, Booker and other witnesses recalled hearing a man saying, “go get a noose” several times. It was the noose remarks, one witness said, that signaled to them that they should start recording video.
Some of the dispute also focuses on whether Booker was defending himself on public property or trespassing on private property owned by the McCord family, friends of his attackers. According to the report, the boundaries in that area are confusing. Land owned by the Hoosier National Forest, the McCord family and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers touch in some parts without clear delineation. But after a review, a conservation officer with the Department of Natural Resources concluded that the tree Booker was pinned to grows on land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
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