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.

Tristan Rettke (left) and his attorney, Patrick Denton.

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.

The trial of a young man accused of violating the civil rights of African American students three years ago at East Tennessee State University got underway on Monday.

Jurors listened to opening remarks from attorneys in a case that will have them decide whether confrontational actions by a lone counter-protester at a campus Black Lives Matter demonstration in 2016 crossed a constitutional line from protected free speech into the realm of unlawful harassment.

Prosecutors in Washington County say former ETSU student Tristan Rettke sought to intimidate his schoolmates when he showed up at a designated campus free-speech plaza in September 2106 wearing a gorilla mask and handing out bananas in the midst of a Black Lives Matter demonstration. Rettke, an 18-year-old first-semester freshmen at the time, was barefooted and wearing overalls during the incident, in which he also flaunted a burlap sack depicting a Confederate flag and cannabis leaf as well as a sign reading “Lives Matter.”

In addition, he tied bananas to a strand of rope and dangled them in front of the BLM protesters. Witnesses for the prosecution claim Rettke’s purpose was to insinuate a lynching threat, although the defense denies that.

Led by Assistant District Attorney General Erin McArdle, the state claims Rettke’s behavior constituted felony-level harassment and bullying. Rettke was attempting to coerce the protestors into refraining from exercising their constitutional rights to freedom of speech, McArdle said.

Rettke, who withdrew from the university soon after the incident, is charged with two counts of civil rights intimidation, as well as two counts of disorderly conduct and one count of disrupting a meeting.

McArdle said “obvious racial overtones” permeate the case, especially considering the “history of oppression” blacks have encountered in America. She suggested Rettke’s actions with the rope, which he’d tied into “some kind of noose-looking thing,” were comparable to one person making a throat-slitting gesture toward another, or someone presenting a Jew with an image of a swastika. McArdle suggested that, under certain circumstances, reasonable people might conclude such communications “could be intimidating.”

Rettke’s attorney, Patrick Denton of Johnson City, argues that his client’s actions — even though offensive, confrontational and admittedly ill-conceived — were nevertheless constitutionally protected to the same degree as the right of the BLM demonstrators to publicly present their message.

Rettke’s conduct should be thought of as an example of heckling or a counter protest, he said.

Denton compared Rettke’s actions to publicly burning an American flag, or when religious zealots protest at military funerals. Both may be deeply offensive to many, but both are nonetheless protected expressions of free speech, he said.

“We don’t need the First Amendment to protect speech that is popular,” said Denton.

He added, “It is not a crime to make people angry.”

Denton also noted that, considering the controversial nature of the Black Lives Matter movement, the protesting students “should have considered the possibility of competing or even demeaning” responses to their demonstration.

He also called into question the sincerity of prosecution witnesses who claim they were legitimately intimidated by Rettke’s behavior, pointing out that Rettke was outnumbered significantly by BLM protesters and sympathetic bystanders at the scene.

A lot of Monday was spent with attorneys for both sides, as well as Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice, quizzing prospective jurors about their beliefs on the nature and breadth of freedom of speech in America. Also discussed was prospective jurors’ willingness and ability to set aside preconceived notions they may have drawn about the case, which has garnered significant local media attention.

The case is somewhat unusual in that the jury is being asked to weigh and consider complex and difficult free-speech matters typically left to judges, appellate justices and legal scholars.

Judge Rice acknowledged that free-speech cases can be complicated. “There are entire law school classes” dedicated to analyzing and examining the nuances of such difficult constitutional matters, she said.

She noted that many First Amendment issues “have been the subject of litigation all the way through the courts to the United States Supreme Court.” However, Rice promised to give the jury precise instructions as to how they should weigh the evidence against the specifics of law.

“There is some legal analysis that is required by you as jurors.” said Rice. “But you will be given everything that you are needed to apply the law to the evidence of this case.”

Another curious aspect of the case is that the key piece of evidence — a 9-minute video shot by a former ETSU student named Thomas Grant Madison — is claimed by both the prosecution and the defense to prove their respective claims in the case.

Jurors were in fact shown the video twice Monday afternoon — once during the opening argument by Rettke’s lawyer, and then again a short while later after Madison was called as the prosecution’s first witness. During each screening, the lawyers allowed the video to play without interruption or commentary.

Both sides concur that the video provides an accurate reflection of the events and circumstances of what happened that day in the designated campus free-speech zone outside ETSU’s university library.

Denton told jurors that the video clearly demonstrates that the black students in the vicinity of the BLM protest were in no way intimidated by Rettke’s actions. They may have been angry or outraged — or perhaps even to some degree amused, judging by their laughter recorded in the video — but they were not sincerely frightened, he said.

Madison testified that he was made “very angry” by Rettke’s “antics,” and that his initial reaction was to punch Rettke when the latter offered him a banana.

Madison testified that, in his mind, Rettke’s use of a the rope “was probably the worst part about it.”

“The gorilla thing is silly, the (Confederate flag emblazoned sack) is silly, but the rope was the most threatening thing towards me,” Madison said. He added that when Rettke tied up the bananas and dangled them before the protesters, the impression was that it “signified hanging.”

Madison can be heard laughing loudly throughout the video, and at one point proclaimed, “This is hilarious.” However, he testified after the video was played Monday that Rettke’s behavior was so offensive it was the kind of situation when one has to “laugh to keep from crying” — that feigned amusement was basically a defensive attempt to “make light of the situation.”

“The laughter that you here in the video is not laughing at Tristan, it is laughing to hold something darker inside.,” he said.

More prosecution witnesses will take the stand Tuesday.

Press Release from the Office of Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Justin P. Wilson, May 13, 2019:

An investigation by the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office, in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division, has resulted in the federal indictment of Patrick Martin, the former executive director of the Community Prevention Coalition of Jackson County.

The coalition was a 501(c)3 not-for-profit with a stated mission to reduce underage drinking and tobacco use and increase the capacity for prevention in Jackson County. Its primary funding came from grants from the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Investigators determined that Martin stole at least $46,335 from the coalition between January 2014 and December 2015.

Martin’s schemes included:

  • Using coalition funds to reimburse himself for personal purchases such as hunting supplies, a crossbow, and payment of his personal electric bill.
  • Using coalition funds to reimburse himself for coalition expenses that had already been paid with coalition checks. For example, Martin paid a coalition electric bill totaling $1,607.28 with a coalition check on April 24, 2014; however, he had already written himself a check for that exact same amount three weeks earlier with the memo “electric.”
  • Martin used $4,000 of coalition money to purchase a 1987 Ford Mustang that he gave to friend.
  • Martin wrote several coalition checks to himself indicating they were for repayment of coalition loans; however, the proceeds were used for Martin’s own benefit. In one instance, a $7,500 coalition check was used for a $6,400 payment on his personal mortgage. The remaining $1,100 was deposited into his personal bank account.
  • Martin issued himself 10 extra paychecks.

Approximately seven days after the Comptroller’s investigation began, certain invoices and other financial records were apparently destroyed in a fire while in Martin’s custody. Because these records were unavailable for examination, there is an extraordinarily high risk that additional coalition funds were misappropriated or misused by Martin.

The board of directors of the Community Prevention Coalition of Jackson County elected to cease operations in July 2017 following this investigation.

Subsequent to this investigation, Comptroller investigators joined with federal investigators and expanded the scope of the inquiry. In May 2019, Patrick Martin was indicted by a federal grand jury in the Middle District of Tennessee, Nashville Division, on a 48-count indictment, including two counts of theft, 30 counts of wire fraud, and one count of destruction of records.

“Theft is difficult to detect when one person prepares all of the checks and board members do not take time to review bank statements or other financial information,” said Comptroller Justin P. Wilson. “This organization had a number of inadequate financial practices that provided an opportunity for fraud.”

To view the investigation, go to: https://comptroller.tn.gov/office-functions/investigations/find.html