No hate crime charges for vandal of ‘I Can’t Breathe’ artwork

Prosecutors say they know who did it, they just can’t prove he was motivated by the artist’s race.

EDMONDS — Snohomish County prosecutors are not pursuing hate crime charges for the 69-year-old man suspected of defacing the “I Can’t Breathe” artwork on a fence at Civic Field.

An Edmonds resident admitted to police he used black paint to erase the first “T” of the phrase, which has become a refrain of the Black Lives Matter movement, according to a police report obtained by The Daily Herald. Prosecutors just don’t have enough evidence to say the man committed the act because Christabel Jamison, the 18-year-old who painted it with approval from the city, is bi-racial, Chief Deputy Prosecutor Matthew Baldock wrote on July 16.

To convict someone of a hate crime, prosecutors must prove damage to a victim or property of a victim, malice, and that the suspect acted because of their perception of the victim’s race.

“Ultimately, the suggestion that the suspect knew anything about the artist’s race is entirely speculative and insufficient even to establish probable cause for the referred crime,” he said. “Perhaps even more problematic in that regard is the fact that when contacted by patrol officers, the suspect offered an explanation for his actions that had nothing to do with the artist’s race.”

The day of the incident, the man told police “he was upset with how police were being treated and indicated he was upset with the location of the artwork,” according to the police report.

When the officer told him his vehicle and license plate tied him to the crime, he “became argumentative and talked over me as I informed him of the facts in the case,” the officer wrote.

“Do you want me to clean the paint off?” he reportedly asked the officer.

On July 19, he showed up at the Edmonds Police Department, with a newspaper in hand, to ask if charges were being filed against him, according to the report.

“I made the front page of the paper,” he allegedly told an officer. “… Between you and me, I did it.”

The man added he was upset the city paid Jamison $500 for the “I Can’t Breathe” artwork.

“As distasteful as the suspect’s actions may have been, they do not constitute Hate Crime Offense as referred,” Baldock said.

On Wednesday, Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson disagreed.

“It is reasonable to infer by the public display of the artist’s race in the summary next to the sign, the widely published news interviews of the artist, and the suspect’s actions of spray-painting over the “t” in “I can’t breathe,” that he knew exactly what he was doing: that the victim was Black, that this art is meant to shine a light on racism against Black people and police brutality, and knowing this, he chose to destroy it,” he said in a statement. “The prosecutor denied justice not only for the artist who put her heart, talent and time into this art installation, but for the (Black, Indigenuous and people of color) members of our community.”

Nelson said the man had to know Jamison was Black because of the statement posted next to the artwork which says she is bi-racial, and the series of news articles and segments about her and the installation.

After this story was first published, Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell issued a statement responding to the mayor.

“We cannot advance the cause of social and racial justice by furthering an unjust felony prosecution,” he said. “To do so would be unethical. The community should be deeply troubled that Mayor Mike Nelson would call for the prosecution of a man based on wholly insufficient and speculative facts to prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Cornell said his office will continue to prosecute hate crimes “where there exists sufficient evidence to prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“And we will continue to advance the cause of social and racial justice while concurrently safeguarding the rule of law to both protect and preserve a more civil society,” he said.

The case has been referred to Edmonds Municipal Court for consideration of malicious mischief charges.

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; jthompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

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