Jonesborough, Tenn. — The former East Tennessee State University student accused of violating Black Lives Matter protesters’ civil rights during one of their campus demonstrations three years ago has been found not guilty of the most serious charges he faced.
Twenty-one year old Tristan Rettke, who grew up in Middle Tennessee and now attends college out of state, was acquitted in Washington County Criminal Court Wednesday afternoon of two counts of civil rights intimidation and two counts of disorderly conduct stemming from an incident in 2016 when he showed up at the BLM protest wearing a gorilla mask and handing out bananas to a cluster of African American students taking part in the demonstration.
Rettke was convicted however on a misdemeanor charge of interrupting a meeting or procession. The BLM students had reserved a spot outside the ETSU campus library prior to their protest.
Rettke’s defense lawyer, Patrick Denton, who is originally from Cookeville, expressed disappointment his client wasn’t fully exonerated and said an appeal may be forthcoming.
However, he hailed the jury’s verdict on the civil rights violations — both felonies carrying two-to-four year state prison sentences — as a “vindication for the First Amendment.”
“I am a First Amendment absolutist, so this trial meant something to me,” Denton told reporters after the verdict was delivered. From the outset of the case Denton said he was certain the district attorney general’s office was misapplying the civil rights intimidation statute by suggesting Rettke was trying to silence the protesters through coercion or threats.
In fact, said Denton, if anyone’s guilty of attempting to intimidate a person from exercising their free-speech rights it is the prosecuting attorneys in the case, and Rettke is the victim.
“I could never quite get the state to see the irony in that,” Denton said.
Rettke left the building without comment.
Erin McArdle, the lead prosecutor, said she wasn’t entirely surprised by the verdict because she found it difficult to anticipate what the outcome would be. “This case was one of those that I couldn’t predict anything from the very beginning,” she said, adding that a hung jury had seemed the most likely to her.
Despite the jury’s repudiation of prosecution arguments that Rettke’s actions fit a legal definition of intimidation, McArdle said the type of behavior he displayed “won’t be tolerated” in the future.
McArdle said she stands by her decision to prosecute Rettke on felony charges in spite of the jury verdict.