Florida drops felony charges against antiwar protesters accused of battery on police
In a 45-page report obtained by WJXT on Thursday, State Attorney Melissa Nelson declined to prosecute Connell Crooms and Dave Schneider, two protesters who were arrested during the April 7 incident in Jacksonville’s Hemming Park, where 200 people protested US actions in Syria. When a small group of counter-protesters showed up, a fight broke out.
On Friday, Christina Kittle, Thomas Beckham and William Wilder all pleaded guilty to reduced misdemeanors charges and were sentenced to complete 25 hours of community service.
Law enforcement officers intervened and stepped in between the two groups. One officer attempted to detain Crooms after he lunged at counter-protester Gary Snow, who “flicked his middle finger over the officer’s shoulder and in the face of Crooms.”
While officers attempted to detain Crooms, several other protesters attempted to remove the officers by “physically striking, pushing, or grabbing” them, according to the report.
Five protesters were arrested for various alleged felonies, including battery on a law enforcement officer, inciting a riot and, in one case, possession of a small amount of marijuana. Snow, the counter-protester, was not arrested for his actions.
After the arrests, several videos surfaced showing officers repeatedly punching Crooms in the ribs as he was being restrained. Some criticized the officers for using excessive force on the protesters. Crooms was hospitalized as a result of these injuries sustained during the incident.
The five protesters were dubbed the “Jax 5,” and several demonstrations have been held since they were arrested, demanding that the charges against them be dropped.
The report from the state attorney’s office said they reviewed more than 30 video recordings of the incident, taken from multiple devices and angles, as well as eyewitness testimony during their investigation.
“Since April 7, 2017, we have undertaken a diligent review of all of the evidence and have analyzed the relevant law. I am confident we have reached appropriate outcomes,” the report said.
The state attorney’s office also released new footage of the arrest, which showed officers tackling Crooms and punching him while he was on the ground.
Based on the evidence uncovered during the investigation, Nelson said there was “insufficient evidence” to support the charges against Schneider. They also learned that Crooms had a congenital hearing deficiency, and said they could not “prove that he actually heard and understood the commands of law enforcement.”
The report also said that the state declined to pursue charges against counter-protester Snow, because “his speech and actions, though provocative and offensive to the Protesters, were protected by the First Amendment.”
Since the protesters did not obtain a permit, the state attorney’s office ruled that “Snow had an equal right to be in the same public space.”
“Had the protesters followed the policies of the park and obtained a permit for the use of the park, the officers would have likely been able to limit the actions of the Counter-Protesters, including Snow, by requesting that Snow relocate his protest so that he did not disturb the permitted protest event,” the report said.
Snow told WJXT that he was not surprised by the decision since he complied with the officers’ commands.
"Everyone wanted to play victim. But you know what, I complied with the police officers if they told me to do something. I did what they told me to do," Snow said. "And if any of the Jax 5 had complied that day, we wouldn't be here. They would've never been charged."
The investigation found that there was not a reasonable probability of conviction for the offense of inciting a riot since the state must prove that the protesters did so “with the intent to incite a breach of peace and acted in concert with two or more people to accomplish this.”
And, while the video evidence did show Kittle and Wilder committing a battery on a law enforcement officer, the state agreed not to pursue prosecution on those charges either.
A Facebook page supporting the five protesters, Justice for the Jax 5, hailed the decision to drop the charges.
“We are overjoyed that the State Attorney Melissa Nelson took a stand with justice, against JSO police repression, by dropping the charges against Dave Schneider and Connell Crooms,” the group wrote. “This decision shows why there is a need for more police accountability in the City of Jacksonville and why we need a Jacksonville Police Accountability Council.”