A visibly shaken Jasmine Richards, leader of Black Lives Matter Pasadena, stood in a corner Wednesday morning, huddled against a soda machine, on the ground floor of the Pasadena Courthouse, trembling, as her attorney, Nana Gyamfi, consoled her.
The court had just called. The verdict in her felony “lynching” case was in. The charge is now officially known as Attempting to Unlawfully Remove a Suspect from Police Officers, but until quite recently, CA Penal Code § 405a described the charge of “taking by means of a riot of any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer” as “a lynching.”
Richards, 28, was the first African-American ever actually tried on these charges, said Gyamfi. Others had been initially charged, but the charges had been eventually dropped or reduced. No African-American had actually ever stepped into a courtroom to face the charge.
Richards has been a very visible member of the Black Lives Matter Pasadena community over the last year. She consistently refused to speak with the press, and advised her group of followers to do the same, yet spoke up loudly at City Council meetings, usually in matters concerning the Pasadena Police and the Black community.
Earlier that morning, sitting in a courtroom hallway, Richards had talked quietly and admiringly with her mother about a recent meeting with black activist Angela Davis, who had said, in the face of adversity, “We just go on.”
Richards, stoic at first, now broke down at what she was facing, weeping inconsolably, afraid to go upstairs to face the verdict.
“You’re here now, this is where we are,” Gyamfi said to her, trying to calm her. “Breathe deep.”
“I don’t want go to jail,” Richards said, crying harder. “I don’t want to go through this anymore.”
Richards, her mother, her attorney and a small group of supporters huddled together, hugging, joking and making small talk as Richards gathered herself to make the elevator ride back up to Department H on the sixth floor where Superior Court Judge Elaine Lu, and a jury, waited.
The court called again. Where is the defendant?
“Let’s go,” said Gyamfi, finally.
The group gathered in the small elevator. Richards’ eyes were reddened and teary-eyed, as the elevator lurched upward.
Richards had been arrested and charged with felony lynching following a Saturday, August 29, 2015 incident in a Pasadena restaurant in which a young black woman was detained after allegedly not paying for her meal.
At 4:20 p.m., the Pasadena police received a 911 call reporting a fight in the restaurant. According to Pasadena Police Lt. Tracey Ibarra, who first described the incident to Pasadena Now the day after it occurred, the 911 operator heard the sounds of a commotion in the background. Officers were sent to the 1300 block of North Fair Oaks Avenue, across from La Pintoresca Park.
Meanwhile, supporters of an earlier Black Lives Matter march were mingling in the park across the street from the altercation in the restaurant.
Those marchers and their supporters then reportedly heard and saw the altercation between the business owners and the young woman, as their fighting spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of the restaurant.
“The store owner [was] running after the girl, taking any type of physical force. I think they were definitely out of pocket for chasing that girl because this just in itself ignited fury,” said one witness in the days afterwards.
“All of the people that were in the park all ran to defend the girl,” she said.
Ibarra said that when the police arrived, the suspect was across the street from the restaurant and in the park, among the Black Lives Matter supporters.
The business owner originally asked the police to arrest the suspect, but was told he would have to make a citizen’s arrest, since the police officers had not witnessed the incident occur. The owner agreed. At that point, the officers were duty-bound to effect the arrest.
The police officers “waited about 20 minutes or so,”said Ibarra. They did not act to make the arrest until the woman, accompanied by a few individuals, “walked over to the Raymond Street area, away from the group,” she said.
Ibarra picked up the story again. “Officers then at that point attempted to go ahead and made contact regarding the assault that had occurred in the restaurant,” she said. “When the officers attempted to detain her then, part of the Black Lives Matter protest group attempted to intercede.”
The witness saw the crowd move towards the police officers.
“You know, it was almost as if the spirit just came over them — just, you know, consumed everyone,” the woman said. “My initial thought was, ‘Oh my God! Someone’s going to get hurt bad. This is going to go really bad.’”
“You can tell [the police] were totally caught off guard and didn’t know what to do,” the witness said.
In a video of the incident provided to Pasadena Now by the witness, police can be seen pulling back. A number of people, some carrying signs from the march or wearing Black Lives Matter shirts, scuffle with the officers. Police appear to form a defensive ring around officers who are struggling to handcuff the suspect.
Richards is visible in the video among those in the group which encircled and faced off against the police.
“Officers held them back,” Ibarra said, and were then ultimately able to take the suspect into custody.
Pasadena Police Chief Sanchez said, in the weeks following the incident, that even after the officers had arrested the suspect and placed her into a patrol car, the Black Lives Matters demonstrators continued to confront the officers by encircling and “blockading” the car. During the video of the commotion, a number of Black Lives Matters supporters and police can be seen in physical contact with each other. Some supporters are heard using the words “police brutality” and some sound as if they are pleading with the officers to be careful with the suspect, saying the police are handling her too roughly.
“I don’t think the officers made bad decisions, necessarily,” the eyewitness said. “I think they showed great restraint in the amount of force that they used. But they showed no emotional intelligence. If one of those officers took the time to talk to people, things would have [gone] much different.”
No arrests were made of any of the Black Lives Matter members that afternoon.
The only individual arrested, said Ibarra, was Benita Gina Escoe, 20, of Pasadena, the young woman connected with the restaurant incident, who was arrested for battery.
On the following day, police arrested an 11-year-old boy who had reportedly been at the scene of the confrontation on Saturday, citing him with a Welfare and Institutions Code for juveniles — what would be “resisting arrest” for adults. The charge would also have covered delaying or obstructing a law enforcement officer performing his or her duties.
The boy had allegedly been involved in attempts to free the suspect from the police and had also allegedly kicked a police vehicle during the fracas, a criminal offense.
“He tapped the car,” said one witness. “He didn’t kick it too hard, but he tapped it.”
The juvenile, who was not identified, was released into his mother’s custody that same evening, police said.
Two nights later, Pasadena police arrested Richards in Northwest Pasadena and booked her for allegedly committing four crimes during the incident in the park that Saturday afternoon. Richards was arrested for inciting a riot, child endangerment, delaying and obstructing peace officers in the discharge of their duties, and the lynching offense. By the time Richards had come to trial this month, only the lynching charge remained.
Taking her place at the defendant’s table, Richards was still weeping as she waited for the jury to enter. She stood, went back to her mother for a hug, then returned to her seat.
“Could she go to the bathroom?” her attorney asked. Judge Lu agreed, smiling. As they turned to leave, the jury began to enter the courtroom. Richards sat back down.
As the clerk calmly read the charge and the verdict, Richards trembled again, seemingly caught completely off-guard. One juror, a white, mid-30s blonde woman, wept as the verdict was being read. The jury was mostly white, with two Asians and one Latino.
The jury found Jasmine Richards guilty as charged. The jury was polled, at the request of attorney Gyamfi. The verdict was unanimous.
Then, while the attorneys discussed whether Richards should be taken immediately into custody or not, Richards seemed to focus. Still wearing a fearful look on her face, her tears had stopped. Her attorney cited her friends and small group of followers in the courtroom, and their support during the trial, saying that Richards had support in the community and should be granted bail. Deputy District Attorney Christine Kee, however, cited the probation department’s report that recommended that should Richards be convicted, she should be immediately remanded to the court.
Judge Lu agreed with the probation department report, and ordered Richards into custody. Sheriff’s deputies immediately placed her hands behind her back and handcuffed her. Judge Lu also ruled that Richards had violated an earlier probation by being charged with two additional misdemeanors while out on bail. One involved an incident in Pasadena Council chambers in which police alleged she “rushed” an officer in a doorway.
Now, standing before the Judge, Richards quietly listened as Lu outlined the charge and the conviction. She would be returning to the courtroom Tuesday, June 7, for sentencing. The probation department has recommended 365 days, plus one day, on the charge. The maximum sentence for conviction on this charge is four years.
The Judge dismissed the jury, and Richards, resigned to her fate, was escorted out of the courtroom by Sheriff’s deputies.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom!” Richards suddenly began to chant, as her supporters responded. “It is our duty to win.We must love each other and support each other!” The supporters answered back.
As Richards entered the holding cell doors to the right of the courtroom, her words echoed in the narrow hallway. “We have nothing to lose but our chains!” she shouted, citing Black revolutionary activist Assata Shakur, as the door closed firmly behind her.
“This was a political prosecution, not a criminal prosecution,” said Gyamfi.
“This was a jury that could not tell the difference between a loud Black person and a violent Black person. This jury has nothing to be proud of,” she added.
Meanwhile, Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic Hope, said, “The conviction of Jasmine Richards … is a tragedy, and hopefully a learning lesson for young misguided activists who believe disruption and violence is a tool for solving the problems in our community.”
“The selection of that charge, ‘lynching,’ sends a chilling message to those who support civil rights, to stay out of Pasadena,” said attorney Caree Harper, former attorney for Kenneth McDade, father of 2012 police shooting victim Kendrec McDade.
Richards will return to the court on June 7 to answer her two pending misdemeanor charges, along with her formal sentencing on the felony lynching charge.