A jury dealt a swift blow to Army veteran Brian David Sumner’s free-speech defense, deliberating less than 20 minutes Friday before finding him guilty of vandalizing a Fresno Police Department’s memorial with a stick of white chalk.
The verdict in Fresno County Superior Court stunned Sumner, 26, and his supporters, who contended the misdemeanor charge was ridiculous because his anti-police slogans caused no damage to the granite monument that honors 12 officers killed in the line of duty.
The chalk easily washed away, they said.
“There was no justice in this case,” Sumner said. “All that was proven was that the District Attorney’s Office has a propensity of wasting taxpayers’ money and time in the legal system.”
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But three jurors who declined to be identified said it wasn’t Sumner’s words that got him trouble; it was where he wrote them. They said Sumners’ words were disrespectful and maliciously designed to annoy police, which was one of the elements to prove vandalism. The other element was that the memorial didn’t belong to him.
“We followed the letter of the law,” one of the jurors said.
The case against Sumner was intensely debated on social media circles and on local radio. That’s because Sumner, a combat medic who served a tour in Iraq in 2010, called himself a police accountability journalist and activist and wasn’t afraid to stick a video camera in a police officer’s face and post his videos on the Internet media site fresnopeoplesmedia.com; or on Facebook for Fresno Liberty Movement and Cop Block Fresno; and on his blog, briandavidsumner.com.
A criminal complaint accused him of vandalizing the memorial in the late afternoon of June 16, 2014, when 70 people showed up at police headquarters to demonstrate against police shootings.
Because of the high-profile nature of the case, District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp chose Deputy District Attorney Amy Cobb, a Fresno State grad with a Georgetown law degree, to prosecute Sumner.
Though the chalk washed off easily, Judge Hilary Chittick said that was not a defense to the crime of vandalism. She also ruled that free speech is not a defense to vandalism.
To get a conviction, Chittick said, Cobb had to prove Sumner acted with malice — an intent to cause harm or annoy others — when he wrote in big, bold letters things such as “FPD = Guilty,” “Badges don’t grant extra rights” and “Fresno Liberty Movement.”
Cobb reduced the prosecution’s case to three main court exhibits: photographs of sticks of colorful chalk; Sumner smiling in his gray T-shirt with a picture of a clown wearing a police officer’s hat; and a video showing him scribbling anti-police slogans on the memorial.
In opening statements of the trial Friday morning, Cobb kept it simple, telling jurors that the case boiled down to Sumner’s “disrespect of the law and disrespect for other people’s property.”
Cobb called three witnesses — all police officers who said they were offended by the scribblings.
“It was beyond disrespectful. It was beyond disgraceful,” Fresno police officer David Ponek told the jury. “It was like vandalizing a church.”
But Sumner testified he wasn’t trying to be disrespectful. He said he was just exercising his right to free speech and trying to educate the public about police misconduct and a high number of police shootings, not only in Fresno, but across the nation. He said he never used the chalk to deface the names of the officers killed in the line of duty. His intent, defense attorney Samantha Forbes told the jury, was to “inspire change.”
Cobb bristled at the defense theory.
“Inspire change? I don’t see it. It’s a ridiculous claim by him,” Cobb told the jury in closing remarks.
Cobb pointed out that Sumner admitted in a police interrogation after his arrest that he knew his words were inflammatory. Before he defaced the monument, Sumner legally held signs with anti-police slogans. Because the signs didn’t give him the effect he wanted, he decided to deface the memorial. “He wanted a big bang for his buck,” she told the jury.
Cobb said Sumner’s words to the arresting officer proved his malicious intent: “I’m not apologizing. We were disrespectful. It’s how we get when cops come around. We’re not big fans of police officers.”
In the end, Cobb told the jury that the issue was not what Sumner said, but “how he said it.”
Sumner is scheduled to be sentenced on July 23. He faces up to a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. He said he plans to file an appeal.