PORTSMOUTH, Va. (CN) — The first Black female leader of the Virginia Senate was charged Tuesday in connection with a damaged Confederate statue, just one day before the start of a special session to address police reform.
The charges stem from a June 10 demonstration at a 127-year-old Confederate monument in Portsmouth that had been approved by local police. While the event started early in the day and was mostly peaceful, demonstrators began tearing down the monument and one member of the crowd, Chris Green, was injured when the statue fell.
“It is my hope that my community truly understands that at no point did any member of the Portsmouth Police Department condone the felonious acts that occurred on June 10,” Portsmouth Police Chief Angela Greene said at a press conference Monday afternoon announcing charges of felony injury to a monument against state Senator Louise Lucas, D–Portsmouth, as well as several local civil rights leaders, school board members and public defenders.
Members of the local NAACP chapter were initially charged with trespassing, but those charges were dropped by the prosecutor’s office shortly after the protest.
The police chief said an investigation has been opened into the destruction of the monument. It first went to the state police but eventually returned to Greene’s hands. She said attempts to bring charges with the Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office “did not yield any actions” so she went straight to a magistrate to get the warrant.
“Countless monuments have been defaced by protestors,” she added. “Our incident was the only one that resulted in a man being gravely injured.”
But Lucas, 76, only learned of the charges as she was en route to Richmond from her district to attend the opening of a special session, scheduled to start Tuesday, called for by Democratic Governor Ralph Northam in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests demanding police reform.
“We are confident that justice will be served and that she will be exonerated of these charges,” Delegate Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, head of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, said in a statement following the announcement of the charges. “She was there fighting for justice. These charges against her are simply outrageous.”
Northam and other Democratic elected officials joined Bagby in offering Lucas their support, while the state’s Republican Party went a different route.
“Felony charges leveled against a sitting state senator are to be taken seriously, and should not be sought out for political gain,” Virginia Republican Party Chairman Rich Anderson said in a statement. “It is for that reason that the Republican Party of Virginia calls for Senator Lucas to turn herself in. Immediately.”
Lucas herself has yet to issue a statement but local reporting maps out the day’s events. According to NBC affiliate WAVY, Lucas was present for the start of the June 10 demonstration but she left long before the sun went down and the removal of the statute commenced. But police body cam footage shows a particularly damning exchange with Lucas before she left.
“I’m Senator Louise Lucas,” she said to officers, according to the footage acquired by WAVY. “I know I’m in disguise, but they are going to put some paint on this thing. You cannot arrest them. You need to call [City Manager] Dr. [Lydia Pettis] Patton, because they are going to do it. You can’t stop them. This is city property.”
“That absolutely could make the case, that could be enough to prove knowledge, admitting to being aware of certain things she expects to happen,” said Todd Stone, a Richmond-based criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor.
But while Stone admitted the video might not look good for the senator, he said there are other aspects of the charging process that raise red flags.
“It’s fairly normal for police to get felony charges for people without consulting the commonwealth’s attorney, they do it all the time, but when it’s for someone in another branch of government there’s this whole separation of powers that we have in the constitution,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time the prosecutors would be in charge of the charging decision.”
The lack of support from the commonwealth’s attorney’s office means no grand jury investigation. Stone said this could greatly complicate the actual trial if the case goes forward.
“The witnesses will be subject to cross-examination, using statements made in the lower court in the defense,” he said. “That’s why a prosecutor would normally want to avoid arresting with a warrant in a case like this.”
Stone also noted Lucas’ legislative efforts on police reform, including a bill she is bringing to the special session that would increase scrutiny of police a pattern of wrongdoing emerges.
“It gives the appearance of political influence, but we’ll find that out down the road,” he said of the timing of the charges. “It certainly smells bad.”
Delegate Lee Carter, D-Manassas, the state’s only Democratic Socialist elected official, went as far as suggesting the warrant from Portsmouth police is a purely political stunt.
“If you’re wondering why they dug up an obscure crime like ‘conspiracy to commit injury to a monument,’ it’s because they need a felony to arrest a senator within 15 days of a session,” Carter tweeted, referring to a provision in the state constitution that forbids the arrest of a legislator for anything other than “treason, felony, or breach of the peace” during a legislative session.
“It’s not supposed to stick,” Carter said of the charge. “The purpose is to prevent her from voting to rein in the cops.”
If impacting votes is the goal, blocking out one senator wouldn’t be enough. The current makeup of the Virginia Senate is 21 Democrats and 19 Republicans. Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, also a Democrat, would have the tie-breaking vote even if one Democratic senator voted against what is expected to be a session aimed at reining in police.
Calls to the Portsmouth Police Department to confirm whether Lucas had turned herself in were not returned by press time, but she appeared at a budget announcement event with Governor Northam Tuesday morning via telephone.
If Lucas has not turned herself in, and the warrant is allowed to stand without intervention from a higher authority, the police will know where she’s supposed to be this afternoon: on the Senate floor.
“If it’s a valid felony charge that has not been served then she can definitely be arrested,” said Stone.
As for Green, the man injured in the June demonstration, a GoFundMe page set up to support his medical needs says he’s recovering slowly but surely.
“Chris is now conscious and aware of his surroundings. He’s is able to feed himself semi solid foods and his [sic] able to drink from a cup independently,” according to an update on the page maintained by local activists. “We still have a long journey but I know God is still working on Chris and is not done.”