It was one of the most intense summers ever in Richmond, and in a way, it still isn’t over.
Richmond’s top prosecutor, Colette McEachin, said Monday she is still awaiting a third party’s report and could still file charges against officers accused of teargassing peaceful protesters at the Robert E. Lee monument last June.
However, big questions are raised about what realistically could happen going forward. One way of holding those officers accountable expires on Tuesday, June 1.
On Tuesday at midnight, the statute of limitations to pursue most misdemeanor charges for the June 1 tear gassing incident at the Robert E. Lee monument will expire, according to state code section 19.2-8.
Videos from the June 1, 2020 incident shows protesters kneeling at the monument while protesting George Floyd’s death. Suddenly, RPD and VSP officers arrived and tear gas was used on the group of more than 100 protesters before the curfew that night.
The crowd of demonstrators fled from the area around the monument to avoid the tear gas, and in a video captured by Virginia Public Media and shared with 8News, an officer is shown running after people and spraying them directly with what appears to be tear gas.
What happened that evening caused even more outrage in the community. Will Smith, Richmond’s police chief at the time, and Mayor Levar Stoney apologized to a massive, furious group outside of city hall the next day. “It should have never happened,” Stoney yelled at the crowd. Smith eventually resigned following the protests, at Stoney’s request.
Calls for accountability grew.
A Richmond man, Jonathan Arthur, filed a lawsuit against 10 Richmond Police Department officers for $50,000. He claims the officers violated protesters’ First and Fourth Amendment rights.
Others asked whether any criminal charges would be pursued against any of the police officers.
At the time, Stoney promised action. “Words cannot make this right, and words cannot restore the trust broken this evening. Only action. Only action will repair this community,” he tweeted.
But what has actually happened since?
Last year, police said some officers involved in the tear gassing incident were pulled from the field and disciplined. However RPD never provided evidence or details of that.
At the time, Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin assured Richmond City Councilman Mike Jones that her office was opening an investigation into the matter. Last week, 8News asked what ever came out of that.
We’re learning that McEachin’s office never was investigating.
“My office has zero investigators,” she told 8News in an email. “When the CWAO investigates an alleged crime we use the RPD, since they are the city’s investigative entity. Given the level of mistrust that some had with RPD Investigating the tear gassing incident, the city hired a third-party to conduct an investigation,” she said.
According to RPD last week, the city hired the CNA Institute for Public Research, based in Arlington, to examine the evidence from that day. When that investigation started and how far along CNA is in the process is unclear. “I am awaiting the report from that third-party. I will then review it, as I would review a report from any other entity, and make a determination about the evidence to support criminal charges,” McEachin said, adding that she also does not know when the report will be complete.
In Virginia, the statute of limitations for most misdemeanors, like assault and battery for tear gassing protesters, is one year. McEachin noted there’s no deadline to file felony charges. Federal organizations, like the the FBI, can also pursue charges at any time.
8News spoke with local criminal defense attorney Russ Stone about the possible charges stemming from the tear gassing incident. He explained that there are some exceptions to the statute of limitations for misdemeanors.
Stone said in certain very rare cases, a government official could be charged with a misdemeanor “malfeasance in office”. That statute of limitations is two years.
Stone said a malfeasance in office charge is very rare. An example is a city councilman misspending money. He explained that if a member of law enforcement is charged in the tear gassing incident, he or she would most likely be charged with something like misdemeanor assault and battery.
Last year, McEachin’s office announced that 18 sealed indictments were presented to a grand jury concerning eight Richmond Police Officers’ actions during the protests.
A grand jury ultimately found no probable cause on 16 of the indictments but moved forward with charging two Richmond Police Officers, Mark Janowski and Christopher Brown, with misdemeanor assault and battery following an investigation into an incident on the morning of May 31.
Janowski and Brown are the only known law enforcement officers with charges stemming from the summer protests. Though some speculate about what transpired, what they allegedly did has still not been released by any authorities. The pair is due in court on Wednesday, June 2.
McEachin told 8News by law, she can’t say whether or not the six other officers were involved in the tear gassing incident at the Lee monument, which is now known by some as Marcus-David Peters circle.
As of Monday night, Mayor Levar Stoney’s office has not replied to 8News’ inquiry from last week, which asked about the independent investigation.
It was a summer that no one can forget. Weeks of intense encounters between demonstrators and law enforcement left dozens of people arrested and charged. Some demonstrators are still moving through the courts system now, while many others have seen their charges dropped by prosecutors.
8News reporter Ben Dennis also contributed to this report.