The pro-Equal Rights Amendment protester who was being held in the Richmond jail without bond after exposing herself in a protest is being released, according to her attorney.
A magistrate set bond at $700 for Michelle Renay Sutherland, 45, of Brooklyn, N.Y., after she exposed her breast during a bit of performance art on Monday in which she and another activist mimicked the Virginia seal.
But Judge Lawrence B. Cann III on Tuesday, during a video arraignment, ordered her held without bond.
Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring and Sutherland’s lawyer, David Baugh, requested she be released on a promise to return for her March 21 court date.
The judge apologized in a court hearing on Thursday, Baugh said, saying he didn’t have the back story and only had paperwork showing the charge of indecent exposure when he ordered Sutherland to be held without bond.
In a phone interview after her release, Sutherland, an artist who goes by the name Sister Leona, said her video bail hearing on Tuesday was over in a minute. The judge asked if she had an address in Virginia, and she said she didn’t. A public defender then told her she was being held without bond.
“I was really confused,” she said.
Other inmates in the Richmond jail told her the decision was unusual, and Sutherland said that made her worried. The other inmates were in jail on charges of murder, substance abuse or domestic violence, she said, most of them awaiting sentencing.
“I made a ton of friends. I have a whole book of addresses,” she said. “One day I gave a talk about the ERA. Everybody sat around. ... None of them really knew anything about it either, so it was great.”
She and the other female inmates talked about the jail’s conditions, inequality and injustice.
“Basically it seems like the prison system is like a drug rehab,” Sutherland said. And while it’s a horrible place to be, “These women are just so awesome.”
“I really want their stories to be out there more, just what they’re going through.”
Sutherland said she is headed to Washington, D.C., on Thursday to get her belongings and then head home to New York.
She and fellow New York activist Natalie White, of a group called Equal Means Equal, on Monday were re-creating the state seal, with Sutherland playing the role of the Roman goddess Virtus, standing over a figure on the ground representing tyranny, played by White. Sutherland had one of her breasts exposed as lawmakers left the Capitol to head to their offices in the Pocahontas Building.
After warning her that she would be arrested for indecent exposure, Capitol Police arrested her. The judge’s decision to order her held without bond made national news.
While their activism generated more attention for the ERA, state House Republicans on Thursday stopped it from coming to a vote on the House floor.
Supporters of the ERA had hoped Virginia could become the 38th state to ratify it, and said doing so would have added it to the U.S. Constitution.
The proposed federal amendment says: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” It provides that Congress shall have the power to enforce its provisions “by appropriate legislation.”