An odd statute tucked into the Virginia state code has led to a rather mind-boggling situation in which a neo-Confederate leader appears to have gotten a young black man who was brutally beaten in a Charlottesville, Virginia parking garage at August’s “Unite the Right” rally arrested this week on an assault charge.
In the Old Dominion, a resident may file a complaint with police and bring it to a magistrate to make the case that there’s probable cause to seek a warrant; for a felony charge, either the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office or police must sign off after reviewing the facts of the police report.
Local legal experts, as well as the Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, say that process played out rather unusually in the arrest of 20-year-old DeAndre Harris.
“I’m perplexed,” said Josh Bowers, a criminal law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, noting that in most jurisdictions only police have the power to initiate the arrest process.
Bowers said this manner of legal recourse reminded him of the pre-Revolutionary War justice system, much of which was carried out by private individuals. He said the statute makes it easy for a person to use “the authority of the state to settle scores or promote private biases,” as exemplified in the case against Harris.
A magistrate issued a warrant for “unlawful wounding” against Harris on Monday at the request of a man Harris’ attorney identified as Harold Ray Crews, an attorney who chairs the neo-Confederate League of the South’s North Carolina chapter. Harris turned himself in to Charlottesville Police on Thursday and was released on bond.
Lloyd Snook, a Charlottesville-based criminal defense attorney, said that the Commonwealth Attorney’s office is “typically” asked to approve warrants. But that doesn’t appear to have happened in this case.
“We did not have anything to do with it,” a spokeswoman for the Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office told TPM in a Thursday phone call, drawing out the pauses between each word. “And we’re after the fact like ‘Hey!’”
Charlottesville police have acknowledged that one of their detectives responded to and “verified the facts” of the complaint filed against Harris, allowing a magistrate to issue the warrant. But that officer apparently was not Det. Sgt. Jake Via, who’s been overseeing the investigation into the parking garage incident.
“We were not expecting this,” Via told the Washington Post earlier this week. “We were expecting to do our own investigation into the man’s allegations.”
Charlottesville police spokesman Lt. Steve Upman told TPM he could not provide further information on why Via, who was most familiar with the case, wasn’t asked to approve the warrant or notified that it was issued.
Local defense attorneys were baffled. Dave Heilberg, a former assistant Commonwealth attorney for Rockingham County, noted that there has already “been quite a police investigation of this incident,” which took place nearly two months ago.
“Why wouldn’t that magistrate send it to that officer?” he asked.
Cheryl Thompson, regional supervisor for the magistrate’s office that covers Charlottesville, told TPM her office was “barred from discussing pending or concluded proceedings” and referred questions to Kristi Wright, the director of Virginia’s Department of Legislative and Public Relations. Wright did not respond to TPM’s request for comment.
In a statement, Harris’ attorney, S. Lee Merritt, accused the magistrate of allowing Crews “to exploit the judicial system by bypassing CPD and presenting incomplete and misleading evidence directly to a magistrate” without “a proper investigation.”
Crews has not responded TPM’s repeated requests for comment this week.
Both Crews’ and Harris’ versions of events hinges on just a few minutes of a melee captured in photos and on video. Video shows a man that Merritt identifies as Crews trying to stab a friend of Harris’ with a pole bearing a Confederate flag. Harris can be seen swinging back with a large flashlight, and is promptly kicked to the ground and beaten with a shield and wooden batons by six white nationalists, leaving him with grave bodily injuries.
Merritt maintains that a cranial injury Crews sustained that day occurred during a “completely separate subsequent incident” that occurred after Harris had already been hospitalized.
Crews and his white nationalist defenders have flooded the Internet with other videos they claim shows Harris attacking Crews first and wounding him in the head.
When asked how the police decided to sign off on the warrant against Harris, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office pointed to the video evidence.
“They have to look into it briefly,” the spokeswoman said. “I think the understanding was that was out there on the web; you can go look for it and probably would find it.”
Three of the men accused of beating Harris have already been arrested and charged with “malicious wounding”; all three were arrested only after being identified by internet sleuths who combed the video and photos of the parking garage attack.
For Harris, the next step is a Friday arraignment, followed by a preliminary court hearing in mid-December.
But in the meantime, the League of the South and other white nationalists who marched with guns and armor to “Unite the Right” are celebrating the arrest and charges against this “young negro male,” pointing to it as proof that the media unfairly painted them as the aggressors in Charlottesville.
As Bowers, the UVA law professor put it, Harris, who now faces up to five years prison and a $2,500 fine, is being “doubly attacked” by the same people who left him with fractures, cranial lacerations and internal bodily injuries.
“Being the subject of an arrest warrant is a profoundly unnerving thing,” Bowers said. “It has reputational wounds, it puts Mr. Harris back in a spotlight he may reasonably want to avoid. He’s dealing with injuries, and now he’s subjected to a new form of injury altogether.”