Thirteen protesters have been sentenced to five days in jail for illegally blocking traffic on Interstate 95 in Richmond during a Black Lives Matter protest in July.
All 13 demonstrators pleaded guilty Monday afternoon in Richmond General District Court as part of a plea agreement.
While the judge allowed some to report to jail in December — at least one woman was granted a delay because she has upcoming college exams — others were immediately escorted off by sheriff’s deputies to begin serving jail time.
“It was rush hour. They put themselves in danger, and they put other people potentially in danger, so we thought that five days in jail was an appropriate punishment,” said Richmond Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Davis Powell, the prosecutor in the cases.
Powell said in an interview afterward that the defendants’ behavior was “rather irresponsible,” adding that while demonstrators have the right to protest peacefully, “stopping rush-hour traffic is an entirely different thing. ... We thought that warranted punishment.”
After activists started a demonstration shortly before 6 p.m. on July 18, about 30 protesters made their way to the southbound lanes of I-95 near the Belvidere Street exit. Protesters held signs and chanted “Black lives matter!” and “No justice, no peace, no racist police!” Nearby, a banner hung from an overpass stating that “black lives matter,” along with a message of support for “queer,” “undocumented” and other people.
Some protesters stood side by side in the roadway and blocked vehicles from passing, causing a major backup on the interstate during rush hour.
By 6:20 p.m., Richmond police were on the scene and, after two warnings to move from the road to the grass, several protesters were handcuffed, according to police.
Those who refused to exit the interstate were charged with being pedestrians on a highway and with impeding the flow of traffic. On Monday, the 13 defendants, all represented by the same attorney, were convicted of obstructing free passage of others, punishable by up to a year in jail plus a $2,500 fine.
One by one, the 13 defendants went before Judge Jacqueline S. McClenney and pleaded guilty to obstructing free passage of others. The plea agreement, accepted by all of the defendants, stipulated that each of them would be sentenced to five days in jail and that the count of being pedestrians on a highway would be nolle prossed, or not pursued.
“We were ready to prosecute them to the fullest extent had they not accepted the (plea) offer, and it was a Class 1 misdemeanor they were charged with,” said Powell, noting that he thought five days in jail was a fair resolution, considering that the defendants generally had few prior run-ins with the law.
Three uniformed Virginia State Police troopers sat in the front of the courtroom Monday, but they did not need to testify because all of the defendants pleaded guilty.
For those allowed to serve their jail time next month, McClenney warned that if they’re late reporting to jail on the agreed-upon dates, they could face additional criminal charges.
On numerous occasions in the past year or so, protests in Richmond have drawn hundreds to more than 1,000 demonstrators who have blocked major city streets, including parts of Broad Street downtown, while dozens of police officers have redirected vehicular traffic.
Some demonstrations have prompted Richmond police to seek help from state police, who have swarmed into action and asked protesters to get off the interstate.
Earlier this month, on the night of Nov. 9, 12 protesters were arrested in Richmond — eight of them Virginia Commonwealth University students — after they sat in the travel lanes of the Downtown Expressway, blocking traffic, according to police. They were charged with unlawful assembly and being pedestrians on an interstate in what state police called a very dangerous situation.
Protesters made clear that night that they were unhappy with Donald Trump having just been elected president, as many chanted an expletive toward him in unison.
Some of the defendants arrested in that protest are scheduled to appear in Richmond General District Court today, when a trial date might be set. Other defendants are scheduled to appear in court Jan. 10. Powell will be the prosecutor in those cases as well.
Only one of the protesters convicted Monday is from Richmond. Five are from Charlottesville.
Those convicted and sentenced to five days in jail are:
- Anthony D. Beck, 24, of Weed, Calif.;
- Nina B. Cohen, 49, of State College, Pa.;
- Donna L. Gasapo, 42, of Charlottesville;
- Julia Griffin, 21, of Sparks Glencoe, Md.;
- Angelica S. Demarco Jaffe, 23, of Brooklyn, N.Y.;
- Katherine M. Martin, 30, of Alpharetta, Ga.;
- Sapphyre K. Miria, 37, of Buchanan;
- Luis A. Oyola, 26, of Charlottesville;
- Frances Richards, 61, of Charlottesville;
- Brandon J. Taylor, 21, of Hampton, N.J.;
- Evan S. Viglietta, 39, of Charlottesville;
- Ryan L. Whitcomb, 27, of Charlottesville; and
- Whitney Renee Whiting, 32, of Richmond.