Just days before trial, a Fayette County judge has decided to dismiss some evidence that prosecutors wanted to use against a Lexington woman who was arrested during the 2020 racial justice protests in downtown Lexington.
Fayette District Judge John Tackett ruled Thursday that prosecutors can’t use any evidence against local activist Sarah Williams that relates to the acts of other protesters, her use of a bail fund, or allegations of harassing a media outlet for “perceived negative reporting.”
But Tackett did permit prosecutors to use some evidence that Williams had tried to object to, including statements made by Williams, and damage done to the police department building and a cruiser by other protesters.
Williams is facing five charges after she was arrested during racial justice protests in downtown Lexington two years ago. Other protesters were also arrested, but they’ve all either pleaded guilty to charges or entered diversion programs. Williams’ trial is set to start Monday.
Her charges – all misdemeanors – include inciting a riot, resisting arrest, possession of drug paraphernalia, disorderly conduct, and possession of marijuana. Tackett’s evidence ruling came after Williams and her attorney, Daniel Whitley, asked on July 1 for the judge to dismiss six piece of evidence.
Williams and others led numerous demonstrations in Lexington after Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis were killed by police.
Thursday’s ruling was made after Williams and her attorney filed a motion to dismiss evidence brought forth by prosecutors. County Attorney Larry Roberts’ office had attempted to submit evidence including statements from Williams throughout the course of protests and evidence of her organizing and directing protesters who wound up in a physical altercation with Police Chief Lawrence Weathers.
Prosecutors also wanted to introduce evidence of other already-convicted protesters’ actions, evidence of Williams’ use of the “LexBail Fund” and Jail Support number, and evidence of alleged harassment and exclusion directed toward a media outlet for perceived negative coverage.
There was also evidence of damage done to the Lexington Police Department’s downtown headquarters and repair costs related to that damage that prosecutors wanted to introduce.
Roberts argued in court documents that the evidence he wanted to introduce was “so inextricably intertwined with the evidence in the present actions that the separation of the evidence could not be accomplished without serious adverse effect to the prosecution.”
In court records, Williams argued to Tackett that the commonwealth was attempting to “bootstrap its case with irrelevant evidence of bad acts, especially acts of others involved in violence during protesting to purposely ‘smear her.’”
She stated that prosecutors were engaging in a “witch hunt” and intended to “inflame the jury.”
Judge John Tackett sustained Williams’ motions in part, to exclude evidence regarding the acts of others, the use of the “LexBail Fund,” and the alleged harassment of a media outlet for “perceived negative reporting.”
Tackett felt this evidence “risked unnecessarily proliferating the issues,” and “had a great potential to confuse the jury, and lacked sufficient probative value,” according to court records.
He also overruled her motion, and allowed some of the prosecutors’ evidence to be introduced including her statements, and damage to police headquarters and a police cruiser.
According to court documents, prior to the deadline imposed by the court, the commonwealth submitted a written notice of intent to present evidence of other crimes, wrongs or acts. However, the notice was submitted by the commonwealth after the deadline expired, court documents say.
Daniel Whitley, a lawyer for Williams, said Tackett’s ruling followed the law.
“The commonwealth was trying to bring in a lot of evidence in an attempt to smear Ms. Williams that was not really about the facts of the case,” Whitley said.
Whitley said the case is about political free speech and pushing society to make changes.
After the nearly 60 days of protests in 2020, Mayor Linda Gorton appointed the Racial Justice and Equality Commission, which issued more than 54 recommendations in October 2020.
Williams and other protesters also pushed for more police accountability – including adding civilians to police disciplinary boards and doing away with a provision that limited “look backs” on previous disciplinary actions to five years. Those changes were included in the October 2021 collective bargaining agreement between the city and the police union.
“What was going on two years ago in our community required someone to speak out to get a lot of attention,” Whitley said. Those change agents aren’t always polite, he said. “The way we do it isn’t always nice.”
Yet, Lexington has made changes thanks to those protests, he said.
“Did our community grow from this? Have we changed the way we do business? I think this trial is a waste of time,” Whitley said.
Williams said she hopes people will have an opportunity to watch the trial in its entirety. Tackett has ruled only one television camera can be in the courtroom during the trial. Hopefully, people will see more than just highlights, Williams said.
“I want this community to be able to watch in real time so they can see what we are fighting against,” Williams said. “Anytime we are seeking to change something, people need to see what we are seeking to change.”
Roberts has continued to pursue charges against Williams, despite calls from some – including the Lexington chapter of the NAACP and a local organization of Black faith leaders – to drop the charges.
Roberts didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment but has previously said Williams had “no respect for the police. “
“Many, many peaceful people were there and we didn’t do anything to them. If police charge them, I’m going to prosecute them,” Roberts added.
Many other cities, including Louisville, have dropped charges against nonviolent Black Lives Matter protesters.
Roberts lost to challenger Angela Evans in the May Democratic primary for county attorney.
“That’s why we have a new county attorney,” said Williams. “This trial will be an illustration as to why.”