The Storm’s Wake: The Legal Aftermath of Springfest 2010

Jeremiah Knupp -- March 8th, 2011

Infamous events tend to produce iconic images and the Springfest celebration held in Harrisonburg on April 10, 2010 was no exception. The resulting disturbance involved an estimated 8,000 people, flying bottles and burning dumpsters and ended up with police officers in riot gear firing tear gas to disperse the crowd. The following Tuesday’s publication of The Breeze, the James Madison University student newspaper, had the headline “WAR ZONE” and featured a photo of a crowd of students surrounding an individual standing on a car by a burning dumpster. Court procedures on February 22 brought the case of that individual, Peter Morgner, to a close.

Cover shot courtesy of The Breeze

Following the incident Harrisonburg-Rockingham Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst stated, “Never should we be faced with the disrespect toward lawmen that I saw in the videos and the photographs. People think that they can, with immunity, throw bottles and concrete and rocks at our officers. I stand here today to say they will not have immunity. They will pay in a court of law.”

In the week after the Springfest incident a “Special Task Force” that included members of the Harrisonburg Police Department, Virginia State Police and members of JMU faculty combed through images and videos taken of the event, both by police personnel, by local media and those posted online on sites like Facebook and YouTube. The HPD did not put a price tag on the activities of the Special Task Force, but HPD spokesperson Mary Hope Vass stated that the investigation involved seven to ten officers.

HPD Criminal Investigations Commander Lt. Kurt Boshart said that while several suspects were identified as a result of the Special Task Force not all cases were deemed worth pursuing. The post-Springfest investigation also involved a raid on the offices of The Breeze, by Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst, to obtain photos taken of the incident by Breeze photographers. The incident garnered both national attention as well as condemnation from the Student Press Association and the Society of Professional Journalists and calls for Garst’s resignation from the state Libertarian Party. The Breeze and the Commonwealth’s Attorney office later settled in an agreement where the state Division of Risk Management paid the paper $10,000 to “resolve any monetary payment . . . including compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney’s fees and costs” and The Breeze released 20 photos from the 926 that had originally been confiscated.

Peter Morgner was one of two individuals identified and charged as a result of the Special Task Force. But according to Morgner’s attorney John Holloran, it wasn’t a Breeze photo or YouTube video that resulted in Morgner being identified. On April 10, after the crowd had been dispersed from the Village Lane area, Morgner witnessed a beating and approached a police officer to report what he saw. Holloran maintains that the officer later recognized Morgner in Springfest photos and used the personal information that Morgner had given with his report to identify and arrest him.

Photo by David Casterline, Courtesy of The Breeze

“If Peter had not approached the police he definitely would not have been arrested,” Holloran stated.

Morgner originally faced 12 charges, including nine felony charges of assault on a law enforcement officer and attempted malicious wounding of a law enforcement officer. Morgner’s attorneys tried to have the trial moved and subpoenaed Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst to testify at the trial. Both were unsuccessful. On January 27 a failed attempt to select a jury resulted in a mistrial.

On February 22, Morgner’s attorneys and the Commonwealth’s Attorney office reached an agreement where Morgner plead guilty to one count of simple assault felony assault on a police officer in return for having the remaining charges dropped. He was sentenced to six months in jail. Having been in jail since July 2010 for violating his bail, Morgner’s time served was applied to his sentence and he was released. Morgner’s guilty plea resulted in the only felony charge successfully prosecuted from the incidents at Village Lane.

The conclusion of Morgner’s case two weeks ago, along with the trial of Lucie Banting, brought to a close the prosecutions that stemmed from the Springfest incidents at Village Lane.

In total, 26 people were arrested and charged for crimes that occurred at the Village Lane incident. Of that total 15 were arrested by the HPD, five by the Virginia State Police and four by Virginia Alcohol Control Board officers at the scene. Two other individuals were later arrested and charged by the HPD.

Of the 26 arrested, 21 were charged with public intoxication and/or failure to disperse from an unlawful assembly, both misdemeanors. Most of these cases were prosecuted by June 2010. Thirteen were convicted of one of the charges. Four were convicted on both charges. Guilty verdicts resulted in fines of between $25 and $550. Four people had both charges dropped, dismissed or were found not guilty.

The remaining five, including Morgner, had charges that included felonies and that could result in jail time.

  • Justin Lyons was found not guilty of assault on a law enforcement officer and participating in a riot with a deadly weapon.
  • Japheth Rawls IV was arrested on four counts, including felony assault on a law enforcement officer and participating in a riot with a deadly weapon. He reached an agreement with the Commonwealth’s Attorney where the charges were reduced and he plead guilty to misdemeanor simple assault and participating in a riot and was sentenced to seven months in jail.
  • Christopher Dashiell, coverage of whose case was absent in the local media, ended up with the longest sentence resulting from the incident. Dashiell, who was originally charged with felony assault on a police officer and unlawful assembly, pleaded guilty to reduced charges of misdemeanor assault and disorderly conduct. He was sentenced to 20 months in jail.
  • Lucie Banting was originally charged with failure to leave an unlawful assembly and felony assault and battery on a police officer and conspiring to incite a riot. The Commonwealth’s Attorney dropped her charges, citing “new information” (“Charges Dropped in Riot Case,” Daily News-Record, Jan. 22, 2011).

“There were inconsistencies as to what officers saw and some of their initial statements proved to be inaccurate,” said Banting’s attorney John Hart.

The Commonwealth’s Attorney later charged Banting with misdemeanor failure to leave an unlawful assembly. She pleaded guilty and received a fine.

Photo by Robert Boag. Courtesy of The Breeze.

“Our biggest concern was the protection of law enforcement officers, as well as those citizens whose property was being destroyed or who were being assaulted,” said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Alycia Eldridge, who prosecuted most of the cases resulting from Springfest. “We identified as many suspects as we could. Our office was aggressive in prosecuting these cases and I believe we did the best that we possibly could.”

Of the 26 people arrested at Village Lane, ten were not JMU students. Of the five charged with the most serious crimes three, including Morgner, were not JMU students.

In a February 10 article in The Breeze, Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst stated of the Springfest incident, “It was just a perfect storm that I hope will never happen again. It was not a happy time for anybody. It was awful for the victims, awful for law enforcement, awful for JMU students and awful for anybody who lived here.”

The beating, which Morgner witnessed and reported to the police, is still being prosecuted. The incident happened at the Corner Market parking lot on Port Republic Road at 9 p.m. on April 10, away from the Village Lane area and after the crowd had been dispersed. Six individuals were arrested and charged with beating a single victim. None of the accused were JMU students. Charges were later dropped against five of the suspects. The remaining suspect, Kalvin Lamar Jackson, has a trial scheduled for May 13 on felony charges of malicious wounding and malicious wounding by mob.

Related Links

HPD investigation Moves Forward

JMU Students Charged in Village Lane Riots

Breeze, CA Office Reach Settlement

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