Public Safety

Morris 'victim of racial harassment,' but AG not filing criminal charges

Former state Rep. Kiah Morris, left, and Attorney General TJ Donovan. VTDigger file photos

[B]ENNINGTON - Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan said Monday that former state representative Kiah Morris had been subjected to racial and gender harassment, but he won’t be bringing criminal charges.

Morris, who had been the only African-American woman in Vermont’s Legislature, withdrew from seeking re-election in August, citing racially motivated threats dating back to 2016 and online harassment over the summer.

Donovan said he wouldn’t be pursuing criminal charges as a result of the probe due to the lack of sufficient evidence to move forward with any prosecutions and the broad legal protections of the First Amendment on the right to free speech, particularly when it involves public officials.

“Kiah Morris was a victim of racial harassment,” Donovan said at the start of the event.

The man who has done much of the harassing of Morris -- self-described white nationalist Max Misch -- showed up at the press conference at Congregation Beth El synagogue in Bennington as it was drawing to a close, causing an uproar that quickly led Donovan to wrap up the event.

Donovan said that his office looked at several incidents that Morris, a Bennington Democrat, and her family had reported to police since 2016, including a break-in at her home, a GPS stolen out of a vehicle, paintballing of a political sign and vehicle, and a report of swastikas painted on trees near her home.

In those cases, the report cited the lack of physical or eyewitness evidence to move forward with a criminal prosecution.

Regarding the burglary in October 2016 in which neckties were stolen from the family’s home, the report stated, “the basement of Ms. Morris’s residence was not dusted for fingerprints or swabbed for DNA nor was the neighborhood canvassed to see if anyone else had seen anything suspicious.”

The report added, “As noted by (Bennington Police Chief Paul) Doucette, this was not unusual for such cases.”

Investigators also looked into the online communications directed at Morris by Misch and others.

“In this case, the online communication that were sent to Ms. Morris by Max Misch and others were clearly racist and extremely offensive,” the report stated. “However, the First Amendment does not make speech sanctionable merely because its content is objectionable.”

The report added, “The fact that a number of messages were directed at her role as an elected official raises the issue of whether they were intended to express political opposition through the use of hyperbole and insult … Therefore, there appears to be insufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges under Vermont law.”

A communication that “arguably comes closest” to a “true threat,” the report stated, is an anonymous electronic message sent to James Lawton, Morris’ husband, in March 2016 “in which he is told that he if did not put Ms, Morris in (her) place, the author of the message would do it for him.”

However, the report stated, “without knowing the context of this message, it is not possible to ascertain whether it rises to the level of a true threat. In any event, the author of this message remains unknown.”

Also, according to Donovan, the report looked into a July 2018 report from Lawton that someone had hacked into his laptop and changed the screenname to “dead dead.”

“Subsequent investigation by the Vermont State Police revealed that Mr. Lawton’s laptop was purchased ‘used’ from another person,” Donovan said at the press conference.

“The prior owner’s 10-year-old child’s screenname for playing online video games was ‘dead dead,’” the attorney general said. “That screenname continued to be synced with the laptop, and it was determined not to be a case of hacking or a criminal threat.”

Donovan added, “I want to note that it was entirely reasonable and rationale for the Morris/Lawton family to view this as a threat in July given the harassment that they were receiving as well as the other events that had occurred previously.”

In announcing his findings, a large crowd of public officials, including lawmakers, police officers, prosecutors and advocates for social justice stood behind Donovan, as did Morris and Lawton.

Lawton also spoke at the press conference, reciting some of the racial and misogynistic harassment his family had endured, as well as the unfounded rumors that had spread around the community.

“If that made you feel uncomfortable hearing it in this safe place surrounded by law enforcement, think about what our family has been going through for two years,” Lawton told the crowd.

Donovan began his probe in September after Morris claimed police and prosecutors in Bennington County didn’t property investigate her complaints or protect her family.

Morris also spoke at the press conference, following Donovan’s announcement that he would not be filing criminal charges in connection with the probe.

“All of the accounts of what happened to me and my family over the years are enormous in scale and historically rooted in a legacy of white supremacy, misogyny, and inequity,” Morris said.

“We did everything that we were told to do, reported as we should, held nothing back, and trusted in a system that in the end was insufficient and inept at addressing and repairing the harm done,” she said. “In the end, we were told there was nothing that could be done.”

For two years, she said, she had lived in her husband’s childhood home in Bennington feeling unsafe.

“I’m blessed that as a legislator I had access to attorneys who had been advising me about the increased harassment at hand,” Morris added. “It was their suggestion that we take it seriously, that my life is worth it, and that actions should be taken.”

She said many others do not have that support that she had access to.

“We are better than this, and it’s going to take real work, and we have to have the courage to rise up and dive in,” she told the crowd. “Do this work for all of us. The soul of our state is your hands.”

Paul Doucette

Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette. Photo by Holly Pelczynski/ Bennington Banner

Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette has defended his department’s handling of the complaints, saying in statement released in September, “All of the complaints filed by Representative Morris and her husband James have been investigated appropriately and efficiently.”

In making the announcement Monday regarding the Morris investigation, Donovan also revealed a new “Bias Incident Reporting System” aimed to help address complaints of bias through a civil process.

Tabitha Pohl-Moore, Vermont director of the NAACP and the president of the Rutland area branch, spoke at the press conference of the need for the state to “update” its legal definitions.

Pohl-Moore said while the probe found that Morris faced “horrific racism,” it’s not right those responsible cannot be held accountable.

“That seems wrong, because it is wrong,” she said.

Brenda Siegel, a social justice activist who ran for the Democratic nomination for governor last year, said in a tweet that she was disappointed that Donovan was not seeking to challenge precedent in cases involving hate speech.

“Caselaw changes because new cases come forward and I would like to see us be bold enough to take that step,” she wrote.

Both House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, and state Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, told the crowd that the issues raised by the Morris case will be discussed in the current legislative session.

Johnson talked how current case law regarding the criminal prosecution in such incidences are based on rulings from an earlier time.

“It is job of law enforcement and our judicial branch to keep the continuity of rights and privileges, and to making sure that we remain on steady course,” she said. “It is the job of a different branch of government, the one that I have the privilege of serving in, to think about our future and where we’re going from here.”

She added, “When I think about the kind of future I want to build in Vermont, it’s the kind of the future where everyone is welcome and safe, where everyone has a seat at the table.”

Asked at the end of the press conference if he believed the report’s findings “vindicate” the Bennington Police Department’s handling of the complaints, Donovan replied, “This is not about vindication, this is not about pointing fingers, this is about coming together.”

Doucette, Bennington’s police chief, reiterated Donovan’s comments.

“It’s not about vindication, today it’s about bringing everybody together and understanding that the Bennington Police Department acted within the current laws and the current system that we have,” the police chief said.

Doucette did talk about the need to improve “protocols” when handling digital evidence contained in smartphones and computers since local and county law enforcement lack the “computer forensic” expertise and need to send such items to Vermont State Police.

“There’s no protocol in place,” he said. “This is a learning experience for all of us.”

Donovan said he was satisfied with the Bennington Police Department’s response to the complaints.

“Their work product was consistent with the work product of other police agencies, probably short of the Vermont State Police who has more resources than anybody in terms of law enforcement,” the attorney general said.

Donovan said he’s willing to work with any lawmaker in reviewing laws to address cases such as this one, but added that any change must meet constitutional muster.

“I think the First Amendment in regards to what is protected in terms of speech is very clear,” he said.

Kiah Morris

Rep. Kiah Morris hugs Rutland County NAACP branch organizer Tabitha Pohl-Moore at the Concert For Kiah in September. Photo by Elodie Reed for the Bennington Banner

“That said,” Donovan added, “we will work with Speaker Johnson, we will work with Sen. Sears and whomever else to craft any law or any policy that protects people in this state and grants them equal protection under the law.”

About an hour into the press conference, Misch arrived just as Morris was answering a question from the media.

Initially, some in the standing room only crowd called for keeping him out, but he was eventually let in the room where the press conference was taking place.

“This is not safe,” someone in the crowd shouted out as Misch entered the room.

“Why is this allowed?” another person asked.

“This is America,” responded someone else as Misch walked in.

Kevin Hoyt, who made an unsuccessful bid to represent Bennington in the House last year, had been video recording the event and standing in the front of the room.

“I was called a Nazi, I was called a white supremacist,” said Hoyt, who last year sought a stalking relief order against Morris’ husband over allegedly inflammatory Facebook posts. That request was later denied by a judge.

“Obviously racism exists in Vermont state. It’s like hate, right, it’s like all these things that’s crazy. We don’t want these things but they’re part of our fabric of society. I question to what degree though,” he said, then added, “I call bullshit on Ms. Morris.”

Meanwhile, Misch stood in the back of the room wearing a shirt with the character known as Pepe the Frog on it -- a character has become tied to anti-Semitism and racism.

Several people at the press conference surrounded Misch with jackets spread open, blocking him from seeing others and others from seeing him.

At one point, those gathered around Misch began singing “The Little Light of Mine.”

Joanna Colwell of Showing Up For Racial Justice told the Burlington Free Press the group gathered around Misch to "protect" people of color from having to see his shirt.

Morris had stepped away from the podium when Misch appeared in the room and seconds later Donovan called an end to the event, which for the first hour featured speakers calling for people to come together against hate.

The attorney general, before moving from the podium, urged everyone to remain civil.

“Vermont is watching,” Donovan said. “Let’s prove ourselves and our state proud.”

Morris has obtained a protective stalking order against Misch in late 2016 after saying she feared for her safety because of messages he sent her. That order has since expired.

According to the report released by the attorney general Monday, Misch had tagged Morris on Twitter in multiple messages with “extremely racist” messages.

One tweet, according to the report, stated, “Sheeit, I be representing dem white muhdfugghuz of Bennington, gnome sayin?”

Asked if his communications with Morris may have gone beyond political speech, Misch responded, “It might have, but it’s still protected speech, is it not?”

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