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Jury in ETSU gorilla mask case hears opening statements about free speech, sees Black Lives Matter video

Becky Campbell • Jul 15, 2019 at 10:06 PM

In his opening statements in a civil rights intimidation trial Monday, a defense attorney said the Constitutional amendment his client is accused of violating is the same one that protects his actions at a Black Lives Matter rally nearly three years ago.

“He's a heckler,” defense attorney Patrick Denton said about his client, Tristan Rettke. “Are we going to outlaw heckling? He was 18. Don't assume the inherent racism he showed that day" is how he feels now. “He's not mad at the BLM supporters in our community. His purpose ... .. he's sending a political message. He's mocking them; they're angry and offended.”

Rettke, now 21, was a freshman at ETSU when he heard about a Black Lives Matter rally at Borchuck Plaza outside the campus library. That particular area, which has a fountain dedicated to the first African-American students to attend ETSU, is a “free speech zone,” where students can openly express their beliefs and opinions about an issue.

Rettke showed up at the Sept. 26, 2016, rally where other students had gathered to display signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and other slogans used during a volatile time when several encounters between police and black men across the nation ended in fatal shootings. One sign at the rally said “Remember Them” and had the names of 14 African-Americans who had deadly encounters with police in the months prior to the ETSU rally.

Several people recorded the encounter between Rettke and BLM protesters. He was wearing a white T-shirt, overalls, was barefoot, had a gorilla mask on and carried a burlap sack emblazoned with a Confederate flag and marijuana leaf, rope and bananas. He offered the bananas to BLM participants and later in the video was seen kneeling down to tie the rope around the fruit. Then he dangled it in front of the protesters.

Denton has contended all along that his client was simply doing the same thing BLM protest participants were — expressing their opinion — and the Constitution does not prevent those opinions from being offensive.

Assistant District Attorney General Erin McArdle saw the case differently.

“During investigation, he told investigators he went to the rally to ‘piss people off .... I wanted to bait them,’” she told the jury. “The bottom line, the defendant broke the law and he should be held accountable.”

The state’s first witness, Grant Madison, videoed part of the incident live on Facebook. During the video he was heard laughing about Rettke’s outfit and actions. After ETSU police arrived and unmasked Rettke, Madison was heard saying, “Look at that little face, boy,”  and “He’s over there so scared.”

Madison was the only witness to testify Monday and said his laughter was simply a way to cope with what was happening, and that he was so angry he was shaking. Even seeing the video again during his testimony, it made him angry, he testified.

His testimony ended near 5 p.m. and Rice recessed court until 9 a.m. Tuesday. After the jury exited the courtroom, she addressed an issue in which an officer had heard witnesses outside the courtroom talking as if they were following the testimony from reporters inside the courtroom who were covering the trial live on social media.

Rice questioned the three state witnesses and all said someone had texted one of them wondering why Denton had asked Madison about a 2017 theft conviction. Attorneys are allowed to ask witnesses about convictions of dishonesty in an effort to impeach them, essentially trying to show the jury the witness can’t be trusted.

Denton did just that, but on redirect examination, McArdle asked a question of Madison that pointed out the charge occurred after the 2016 incident at ETSU.

If convicted, Rettke faces up to two years in prison on the civil rights intimidation charges and up to 30 days on disorderly conduct and disrupting a meeting charges.

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