WATERTOWN — The local man who took down a Gay Pride flag in front of City Hall last June was found not guilty of tampering with someone else’s property.
Donnie Lee Barrigar, 37, broke down and cried once the jury came back after 45 minutes of deliberations Wednesday afternoon.
On June 23 of last year, Mr. Barrigar was charged with third-degree criminal tampering after he allegedly took down the flag, which hung in front of City Hall in celebration of Gay Pride. June is recognized as Pride Month.
At the time of his arrest, Mr. Barrigar said he was well within his constitutional rights to take down the flag. He insisted that he was protected by his First Amendment rights to use the Gay Pride flag in his protest, saying he gets his views about homosexuality from his religious beliefs.
“Read your Bible, boys,” he told prosecutors after the verdict. “Read your Bibles.”
He was accused of lowering the Gay Pride flag and stuffing it into a City Hall mailbox. The not guilty verdict culminated a two-day trial.
Prosecutor Nolan Pitkin said he respected the jury’s decision.
“I respect the judicial process,” he said. “I thought our office presented the best possible proof we could prove.”
There was no question that he removed the flag from in front of City Hall, since he posted a video of himself doing it to his YouTube channel minutes afterward. But the question was whether he caused “substantial inconvenience” to anyone to correct the situation.
During the trial, a police officer testified she was at the scene for an hour when she could have been on other calls. A city public works employee told jurors he had to return to City Hall after working for the day. Apparently, prosecutors were unable to prove that part of the legal question.
After the verdict, prosecutors were able to talk to jurors about their decision, who told them they had questions about the timing of returning the flag to the flag pole.
Before the trial, City Court Judge Anthony M. Neddo ruled that Mr. Barrigar could not argue in the case that his constitutional rights were violated.
The trial was held in a state Supreme Court courtroom because of COVID-19 social distancing issues in the smaller City Court facilities in City Hall.
Mr. Barrigar’s actions prompted more than 150 LGBTQ supporters to come together in a show of solidarity to protest what he did. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo also offered to help the state police with the investigation into Mr. Barrigar’s action. The governor called him a bigot.
Mr. Barrigar’s attorney, John W. Hallett of Watertown, said he wasn’t surprised by the jury’s decision.
Mr. Hallett said he only wished the case that attracted national attention didn’t produce “vehement hatred” on both sides of the issue, but people would have considered “the question of the legal elements.”
“It was a long year,” the attorney told his client after the jury returned the verdict, referring to the fact that the trial was delayed for months because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Some members of the local LGBTQ population have expressed concerns about what kind of action Mr. Barrigar might take if he was found not guilty. The city will hold Gay Pride celebrations in about two weeks.
Most recently, Mr. Barrigar was charged with trespassing after causing a disturbance during a City Council meeting. He was ordered to stop talking about his “flat Earth” beliefs and was arrested after he continued to disrupt the meeting.
That case is still pending. He’s scheduled to appear in City Court on Friday.
It’s unclear how city officials will handle Mr. Barrigar if he interrupts future City Council meetings.