Jurors are scheduled to take up deliberations Wednesday in the Washington County civil rights intimidation case involving a former East Tennessee State University student who wore a gorilla mask to a Black Lives Matter demonstration.

Lawyers for both the prosecution and the defendant, 21-year-old Tristan Rettke, finished up closing arguments Tuesday following a day of testimony from witnesses who as ETSU students in 2016 attended the BLM campus protest Rettke stands accused of illegally interrupting.

The students who testified for the prosecution all claimed they were shocked and deeply offended when Rettke arrived on the scene wearing the gorilla mask and dangling bananas from a piece of rope in an obvious attempt to mock them.

The students, all of them black and most of them involved in African American-focused activist groups, each said they took the rope to symbolize a noose, which left them fearing for their safety. One student said the rope brought to mind slavery and lynching. Another said she regarded the rope as “a weapon.”

The lead prosecutor for the case, Assistant District Attorney Erin McArdle, later argued that Rettke’s “sole purpose was to provoke the other students” by displaying “symbols of hate and oppression.”

Rettke is charged with two felony counts of civil rights intimidation and three lesser charges, including disorderly conduct and disrupting a meeting.

Jurors also heard from the Rettke himself for the first time, albeit indirectly.

Rettke didn’t take the stand Tuesday, but prosecutors played an audio recording of the then 18-year-old’s interview with a campus police officer after he was taken away from the scene of the BLM protest.

In it, Rettke offered a glimpse into his thinking prior to the event.

He described his conduct as “a practical joke of sorts.” Rettke said he was trying to get a reaction from the students for his personal amusement.

“To be honest, I didn’t have any specific thought process toward what the gorilla mask meant — it was more about what other people would think,” Rettke told the officer. He said later likened his behavior to “an experiment to see their reactions.”

Neither Rettke nor the officer made any mention of a “noose” during the interview. Rettke said he was using the bananas to “bait” the BLM protesters.

When pressed about the meaning of the gorilla mask, Rettke said, “With recent action of Black Lives Matter, it resembles ape-like behavior — rioting, looting, blocking traffic, destroying property.”

In a written statement to police, Rettke indicated confusion as to why he was in trouble given that he’d heard about or observed street preachers confronting homosexual students in the free speech zone with inflammatory religious rhetoric.

Rettke’s defense attorney, Johnson City lawyer Patrick Denton, later argued that Rettke’s statements to police and also an earlier post he’d made on an internet message board expressing criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement indicated a political message was part of his actions. For those reasons alone, Rettke’s behavior should be viewed as an admittedly offensive but nevertheless First Amendment-protected form of counter-protest, said Denton.

Denton noted in his closing argument that the jury instructions already established for the case declare that the defendant cannot be convicted “for the manner of expression or the actual content of his opinions.”

“What else is there? What else are they asking you to find him guilty based on?” Denton said to the jury. “He didn’t touch anybody. He didn’t threaten anybody. Those two things encompass it all, and that is why I have to say he’s not guilty of any of these crimes — it’s not even close.”

The jury is scheduled to receive final instructions from the judge and go into deliberations Wednesday morning.

Press Release from the Office of Republican Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, May 2, 2019:

Gov. Bill Lee Lauds General Assembly in Working Together to Pass Conservative Reforms

$38.5 Billion Budget Passes Unanimously

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee marked the close of the 2019 legislative session, a session which included the unanimous passage of his budget as well as the passage of his full agenda as outlined during his State of the State address in March.

“In March, I presented our budget and a series of priorities which I believe will be foundational to making Tennessee a leader in the nation,” said Lee. “Working with the General Assembly leadership and members, we passed reforms that will continue to build on the momentum our state has seen in recent years.”

Gov. Lee’s slate of priorities included 16 legislative initiatives to work towards strengthening public education and school choice, enhancing workforce development, addressing criminal justice reform and public safety, promoting good government and developing solutions for rural Tennessee.

The passage of the fiscal year 2020 budget marked the first unanimous budget approval from the General Assembly since 2011. Notably, this budget includes a historic deposit to the state’s Rainy Day Fund that will elevate reserves to over $1.1 billion. Tax cuts included a full repeal of the Gym Tax, the elimination of sales and use tax on agricultural trailers and a reduction to the professional privilege tax.

“I commend the General Assembly for their work this session and I look forward to joining members in their districts in the coming months to highlight all that was accomplished this session” said Lee. “I am especially pleased with the outcome of the budget and our joint commitment to making sure Tennessee is well-managed and fiscally sound.”

Highlights from Gov. Lee’s legislative agenda include the following:

Strengthening Public Education and Expanding School Choice:

  • Creating the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) to expand access to vocational and technical training to students
  • Establishing an education savings account program to expand school choice for low-income students in Davidson and Shelby counties
  • Creating the Future Workforce Initiative to prepare students for the jobs of the future in science, technology, engineering and math
  • A $71 million investment in pay raises for teachers across Tennessee and investment in professional development programming
  • A three-year pilot program to provide support services for high school students in Tennessee’s 15 distressed counties
  • Establish the Governor’s Civics Instructional Seal to support and recognize schools that prioritize teaching our nation’s history and civic values
  • Investing an additional $175 million in new funding to support teachers and students in public schools
  • Establishing an independent statewide charter school authorizer and adding $6 million to the charter school facilities fund

Enhancing Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform

  • Investing $40 million in school safety enhancements
  • Increasing penalties for trafficking fentanyl
  • Increasing the training pay supplement for firefighters and police officers
  • Increasing salaries for corrections professionals
  • Expanding the Electronic Monitoring Indigency fund to reduce needs for pre-trial incarceration
  • Eliminating the state fee for the expungement of records for those who have paid their debt to society
  • $5 million to expand recovery courts and services for people in the justice system with drug abuse issues
  • $4 million investment in pre-release rehabilitation and education for incarcerated individuals

Investing in Health Care and Good Government Initiatives

  • Establishing the Office of Faith Based Initiatives to support partnerships with the non-profit community
  • Expanding the state’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit with an additional 24 positions dedicated to identifying fraud and waste
  • Investing an additional $11 million to support mental health services through the behavioral health safety net and regional mental institutes.
  • Increasing funding for graduate medical education at Tennessee’s medical schools and critical incentive programs that provide financial support to resident physicians who commit to living and working in our rural communities
  • Investing an additional $2 million recurring for the primary care safety net for federally-qualified health centers (FQHCs) and community- and faith-based clinics, providing primary care services to low-income, uninsured adults
  • A $3 million recurring increase to support medical students who agree to work in an underserved area after graduation. These state dollars would draw down an additional $5.7 million in federal funds
  • $11.9 million investment to maintain pay increases funded in last year’s budget for providers delivering services to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities

Press Release from United States Senator Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, May 1, 2019:

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) questioned Attorney General William Barr on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

On the Politicization of Law Enforcement Agencies

BLACKBURN: What seems to have happened at the FBI is that there is a seedy, cynical, political culture within a group that developed, and these individuals, collectively, seemed to think that they could work within the power of their jobs and their roles with the federal government. There was an elitism and an arrogance there and it speaks to a very unhealthy work culture.
Watch this clip HERE.

On the Special Counsel Team’s Investigation and Findings

BLACKBURN: Are they meticulous investigators who will hunt down every witness and every piece of evidence?
BARR: I think they are tenacious investigators.
BLACKBURN: Are they devoted to finding the truth?
BARR: Yes.
BLACKBURN: Are they masters at taking down hardened criminals foreign and domestic?
BARR: Yes.
BLACKBURN: If there were evidence to warrant a recommendation for collusion charges against the president do you believe the Special Counsel team would have found it?
BARR: Yes.
BLACKBURN: And if there were evidence to warrant a recommendation for obstruction of justice charges against the president, do you believe the Mueller team would have found it?
BARR: I think that they canvassed the evidence exhaustively and they didn’t reach a decision on that.
Watch this clip HERE.

On Americans’ Trust in Government Agencies

BLACKBURN: People want to see government held accountable. They want to see agencies act with accountability to the American people, and they don’t want to ever see this happen again. It doesn’t matter if a candidate is a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent. They never want to see this happen again.
Watch this clip HERE.

PRESS RELEASE from the State of Tennessee, Feb. 17, 2019:

Link: https://www.tn.gov/twra/news/2019/2/17/migratory-gamebird-hunting-seasons-among-february-tfwc-agenda-items.html

Two-day meeting to be held at Ellington Agricultural Center’s Ray Bell Building in Nashville

NASHVILLE — The setting of the 2019-20 migratory game bird hunting seasons will be among the agenda items for the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission at its February meeting.

The two-day meeting is set for Feb. 21-22 (Thursday-Friday). Committee meetings will start at 1 p.m. on Thursday. The regular commission meeting begins at 9 a.m., Friday.

A preview of waterfowl and migratory game bird hunting seasons were made at the January meeting held in Memphis. The proclamation includes season dates and bag limits for ducks, geese, crows, dove, snipe, woodcock, rails, and sandhill cranes.

Changes in the federal framework require the TWRA to update its proclamation each year. The season change proposed to crow, woodcock, ducks, geese, and sandhill cranes were based mainly on hunter input.

Chuck Yoest, CWD (chronic wasting disease) Coordinator, will present an update on the TWRA’s CWD response efforts. James Kelly, Deer Management Program leader, will provide a brief update on changes made to the Strategic Deer Management Plan as a result of public input received and the confirmation of CWD in Tennessee.

Tennessee had a record black bear harvest in 2018. Dan Gibbs, the Black Bear Program leader, will provide an overview of the season, research, and ongoing issues.

Several TWRA divisions are in preparation for various outreach and support roles for the Bassmaster Classic and Outdoors Expo in Knoxville, March 15-17. Pro anglers will compete for three days on Fort Loudoun and Tellico lakes. TWRA Fisheries Chief Frank Fiss will discuss TWRA’s involvement for the event, which is expected to attract more than 150,000 spectators.

Other updates will include in the area of marketing and R3 (recruitment, retention, and reactivation) efforts from 2018 and a look at new tactics for this year.

The commission will elect its new officers for 2019-20 to serve as chairman, vice chairman, and secretary. The February meeting will also conclude the appointment terms for commissioners Jeff Cook (Franklin), Bill Cox (Collierville), Chad Baker (Bristol), Bill Swan (Dunlap), and Jamie Woodson (Lebanon).

Statement from the Beacon Center of Tennessee, (Dec. 11, 2018):

Link: http://www.beacontn.org/time-to-rethink-our-approach-to-asset-forfeiture

By Branden H. Boucek

The practice of civil asset forfeiture – whereby law enforcement can confiscate a person’s property or money on a suspicion of criminal activity, leaving it to the person to establish his or her innocence – may be on rocky terrain. If the skeptical questions of the Supreme Court justices in the recently argued case of Timbs v. Indiana are any indication, civil asset forfeiture may soon be subject to the constitutional prohibition on excessive fines, putting at least some limits on the practice. Some justices were apparently unmoved by the contention that law enforcement could seize a Land Rover for speeding by 5 miles-per hour.

Civil asset forfeiture is, in addition to flying in the face of the Fifth Amendment and its prohibition of taking of property without due process, bad law enforcement. The law enforcement agency typically keeps the assets. By effectively allowing for law-enforcement to self fund, civil asset forfeiture sets up all the wrong incentives. There’s every reason to chase dollars instead of bad guys.

Imagine an investigation into an international drug cartel has been underway for years when an intercepted phone call reveals that sizable monetary assets are on the move. It isn’t difficult to imagine the pressure to succumb to short-term thinking by making a bad law enforcement decision: seize the known asset rather than wait. The problem is that arresting lower level targets compromises an investigation. It’s hard to ask cash strapped agencies under continuous pressure to do more with less. The temptation to compromise a serious, long-term investigation should not exist. Law enforcement should be funded through the regular budgetary process.

Tennessee would be wise to start thinking proactively about a new approach to seizing criminal assets. Fortunately, it is not an all–or–nothing approach between civil asset forfeiture and criminals keeping drug proceeds. We have another well–established approach. It is called criminal asset forfeiture.

Criminal asset forfeiture produces the same ultimate result: divesting the criminal of illegal gains. The difference is that criminal asset forfeiture uses the regular criminal process, and assesses the forfeiture as a penalty. Under criminal asset forfeiture, the accused can either plead guilty or ask for a jury to make the determination. In other words, this is what we are already doing to anyone accused of a crime. As pointed out above, civil asset forfeiture allows for property to be seized without anyone being charged ever.

To be sure, criminal asset forfeiture is not as quick as civil asset forfeiture. Law enforcement must wait until the proceedings resolve. And now prosecutors must add and resolve an additional charge. But all this is a small price to pay for a restoration of the Fifth Amendment.

Now is as good of a time as any to start rethinking our approach to asset forfeiture.

The Beacon Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, and independent organization dedicated to providing expert empirical research and timely free market solutions to public policy issues in Tennessee.