Dropped charges spark anger

Black leaders decry action in defacing of Annapolis statue

January 04, 2001|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Black community leaders in Annapolis were outraged yesterday that the state failed to prosecute a Crownsville man accused of defacing the statue of the late black doctor and political leader Aris T. Allen by placing a white hood on its head and taping Confederate flags to its hands.

They questioned why the state's attorney's office didn't make sure prosecution witnesses showed up at the trial and claimed the state "dropped the ball," sending the message that people can get away with hate crimes.

"The state had a responsibility with a case that had this kind of high profile," said Carl O. Snowden, a community activist and special assistant to the Anne Arundel County executive.

"They should be ashamed of themselves."

The charges of destruction of property and two counts of racial and/or religious harassment were dropped Tuesday against John Mathias Exner Jr., 37, of the 700 block of Old Harold Harbor Road, after two key prosecution witnesses failed to appear for the District Court trial in Annapolis.

State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said he felt confident the witnesses would show up for the trial because they had responded to an $8,000 reward for the arrest and prosecution of the person responsible for the vandalism.

He also said that, because the witnesses were from out of state, subpoenas would not usually be issued for their appearance. He said it's a "relatively complicated process" to issue out-of-state subpoenas.

"It's very unfortunate; the last thing in the world I want to do is upset the community," Weathersbee said. "But I also know you can't prove a case if you don't have witnesses."

Peter S. O'Neill, Exner's lawyer, said his client maintains his innocence and was disappointed because he didn't get the opportunity to tell his side of the story. He said Exner finds the vandalism "abhorrent to his background and his feelings about African-Americans."

Gerald Stansbury, president of the NAACP branch, which put up some of the reward money, said the state should have issued subpoenas for the witnesses in this case, and by not doing so, the state let it "slip through the cracks."

"I understand it was a statue and technically no one was hurt in this case, but we need to send a message that these people will be prosecuted," he said. "For us to not prosecute the case, I think it sends a whole other message.

"It's sloppy work, and it shouldn't have happened that way."

Weathersbee said his office will look at the case to determine whether Exner can be charged again in the incident and whether the key witnesses would appear.

However, he said he was unsure whether the charges of racial and religious harassment were appropriate.

"We don't think it fits under the statute that deals with hate crimes," he said.

On July 4, Annapolis police found the bronze statue on Chinquapin Round Road draped in a white pillowcase with eyeholes and a painted red smiley face, and two Confederate flags taped to its hands.

Clemon H. Wesley, founder and co-chairman of Respect, a coalition of black organizations in Anne Arundel County that put up $1,000 for the reward, said the group is "under the opinion that we got the right guy."

He said the group will discuss what actions to take next at its monthly meeting tonight.

"We had hoped we would get an arrest and conviction," he said. "The conviction would amount to a home run, and we haven't given up hope yet."

O'Neill said he had two alibi witnesses prepared to testify that Exner was not in the county at the time of the crime and three other witnesses to refute the alleged admission he had made to a witness.

According to charging documents, Exner told one witness, "I placed a white hood over the head of the statue with the eyes cut out and a smiley face. Then I taped two Confederate flags to the hands."

O'Neill said Exner is considering taking civil action against the city or against the witness who claims he confessed.

"The unfortunate part about this situation is that he's been put through the emotional trauma of being charged with such a terrible crime and was never able to clear his name from the standpoint of a trial," O'Neill said.

"The evidence would have shown beyond any doubt that he's not guilty and should not have been charged."

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