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Amina Kilpatrick / Sun News Editor

October 10, 2019

District Attorney Challenges Description of Controversial Commons Arrest

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“While it was clear that the young woman punched a police officer,” District Attorney Matthew Van Houten said on Thursday, “It was not as clear whether the facts supported the felony charges upon a strict application of the law.”

The D.A. offered a public statement for the first time since the arrests of Rose Degroat and Cadji Ferguson at a joint press conference hosted by Van Houten and Ithaca Police Chief Dennis Nayor.

The case of these two black residents that began with a controversial arrest in April has brought national debates on police conduct and systemic racism home to Ithaca.

[Read The Sun’s coverage of the arrests and the subsequent demonstrations.]

Van Houten and Nayor tried to offer context and answer questions about the April 6 arrest, which ultimately resulted in one not-guilty outcome for Ferguson, and a dismissal of charges against Degroat. Van Houten noted that New York’s court has said that a dismissal of criminal charges was not an acquittal.

“We respect the court’s judgements,” Van Houten said. “We will not always agree with these rulings.”

Van Houten then explained his motivations over the past few months, stating that his goal throughout the case was not “for either of these young individuals to be criminalized or incarcerated,” he said. “What I’d want them to do is accept responsibility for their actions.”

This was why he proposed a mediation, or a type of restorative justice resolution, he said.

Over the summer, Van Houten suggested setting up a mediation to work towards preventing a permanent record for Degroat. In July, Van Houten and Edward Kopko, Degroat’s attorney, seemed close to a plea agreement — so close that mediation dates were proposed by both parties, court documents show. Ultimately, though, Van Houten rescinded the offer.

“Mediation requires honesty and good faith,” the district attorney said on Thursday. “It doesn’t work if the participants don’t tell the truth.”

One key part of the defense’s case was that Ferguson struck the older man because he appeared threatening. The complaint that the man had committed a sexual assault, Van Houten said, was not only untrue, but a “clear misrepresentation.”

According to the Ithaca Voice, Ferguson and his brother, Dominique Stevenson, testified in August that the older man stood closely behind their friend, with his groin close to their friend. Ferguson said that he wasn’t sure whether contact occurred, but that he thought it had, the Ithaca Voice reported.

Van Houten’s office investigated the claim of a sexual assault, interviewed the man accused of sexual assault and repeatedly tried to speak with the alleged groping victim, he said.

“When I first learned that the allegations of a sexual assault were fabricated, I was shocked,” Van Houten said. He then rescinded the offer for mediation.

“Now that the process is over,” Van Houten said, “it is unfortunate that neither of these young people ever took responsibility for his or her actions.”

Ferguson was found not guilty in August due to lack of sufficient evidence, and charges were dismissed against Degroat in September after an omnibus motion was filed by Degroat’s attorney.

This dismissal came after considerable fluctuation in the charges against Degroat — court documents filed by Kopko and Van Houten showed that since the arrests in April, charges against Degroat slid back and forth.

Degroat was first charged with two felony counts, which Van Houten said he initially decreased because he wasn’t convinced that it was “legally appropriate.” Then, after continuing to think about it, he introduced it to a grand jury for consideration — the best way to determine charges, he said, because it is a “group of lay people.”

When the grand jury’s decision came out, Degroat was charged with two felonies and a misdemeanor, and a trial date was set for November.

But Tompkins County Judge John C. Rowley, who ruled to dismiss charges against Degroat — citing the “regrettable actions” of IPD officers on the scene — critiqued the officers involved for overreacting to the situation, and reprimanded the police officer’s use of a taser when attempting to subdue Ferguson.

As the legal spar continued, protests led by Black Lives Matter Ithaca and the Multicultural Resource Center continued, keeping the case in the public eye, and leading to actions by Mayor Svante Myrick ’09, demonstrations at Common Council and public protests. Still, Van Houten said, “no one — not the police, not the mayor or Common Council, and not the public — dictated my decisions in this case.” 

According to Police Chief Nayor, the officers’ conduct complied “with policy and legal standards, with some training opportunities identified and addressed.” Nayor said that a highly-qualified lieutenant with a catalog of specialized training conducted this investigation.

Nayor and Van Houten also both supported a community forum in the future, and Van Houten also expressed interest in expanding restorative justice options across the board.

“Was justice accomplished? I don’t know,” Van Houten said. “That depends on who you ask.”

District Attorney Statement 10 10 2019