ITHACA, N.Y. — A case the public has watched closely this summer through several turns reached a decisive fork on Monday: accept a plea offer put on the record by the District Attorney or head to trial this fall.
Rose de Groat, 23, of Ithaca, was charged with striking two police officers during an altercation on the Ithaca Commons in April. Earlier this summer it appeared the top charges would be reduced to misdemeanors, and heading into Monday’s court date several sources — including de Groat’s attorney, Edward Kopko, and Mayor Svante Myrick — had made public statements describing an offer from District Attorney Matthew Van Houten to drop all charges and move the case to mediation. Instead, at a Lafler hearing Monday intended to make clear the terms of the prosecution’s offer, Van Houten laid out an agreement that would require a guilty plea to disorderly conduct, a non-criminal violation.
About 150 people packed the Tompkins County Courthouse for Monday’s brief hearing and gathered outside after to insist that all charges be dropped, in addition to reiterating demands for broader reparations.
Organizers from groups including Black Lives Matter – Ithaca, Tompkins County Showing up for Racial Justice, and the Multicultural Resource Center handed out signs reading, “We demand justice for Rose & Cadji” and “Drop the charges now!” and waved banners with messages of solidarity for de Groat and Cadji Ferguson, 26, who was charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct following the April 6 incident.
At about 1:20 a.m. on April 6, Ithaca Police Department officers patrolling the Commons were alerted to an altercation unfolding and ran toward it. Police said in a press release prepared on April 6 that they saw Ferguson punch a man and that he resisted when they tried to take him into custody. They said de Groat struck two officers in the head and face.
Body camera footage released in May shows that less than 30 seconds after police began running toward a group that included Ferguson and de Groat, they tased Ferguson and tackled de Groat, pinning both to the ground.
With rallies and statements on social media, Black Lives Matter – Ithaca has organized an energetic response to the incident and has called on local leaders to drop charges, compensate de Groat and Ferguson for damages and discipline the IPD officers involved. They have also alleged that the altercation was sparked by an older white man who groped a friend of de Groat and Ferguson, and have called for an investigation into the man’s conduct.
During Monday’s hearing, Van Houten rejected that narrative, stating, “No one was groped, there was never a sexual assault, no one was touched in any manner.”
However, he said his office did not get far with investigating the allegation of groping because the defense team would not cooperate. Edward Kopko, one of de Groat’s attorneys along with Jerome Mayersak, said at de Groat’s arraignment in June that they would not cooperate with the prosecution’s investigation. Asked why at the time, Kopko said, “There was an opportunity to properly investigate this, and it was passed by. … It’s appalling that they’re only now doing this investigation after my client has already been indicted for felonies.”
Van Houten said that regardless of how the incident began, he did not want to leave de Groat with a permanent criminal record for her role.
The offer Van Houten presented Monday would require de Groat to plead guilty to disorderly conduct, a non-criminal violation. She would receive a one-year conditional discharge, the only condition being that she avoid any legal trouble during the year. At the end of the year term, the record of the case would be sealed.
Van Houten said he sent the offer to Kopko and it was rejected. He said he asked for Monday’s hearing to make sure de Groat understood the terms of the agreement.
Kopko shot back Monday that the hearing was not a legitimate attempt to communicate the terms of the agreement. “This is an attempt by the D.A. to squeeze a young lady into pleading guilty to charges she’s not guilty of,” Kopko said. De Groat pleaded not guilty to two counts of second-degree attempted assault, a Class E felony, as well as resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration, both misdemeanors, in June.
Kopko said Van Houten had previously offered to drop all charges and asked the court to insist that the district attorney honor that agreement.
Judge John Rowley, however, said that wasn’t going to happen. Rowley said the purpose of the hearing was to ensure that de Groat understood the prosecutor’s offer before her attorney rejected it, calling the back and forth between Kopko and Van Houten “obnoxiousness.”
De Groat affirmed that she understood the district attorney’s offer and did not accept it. Rowley then called the hearing to a quick close.
“This case is going to trial, so why are we here? Why are there 150 people here?” Rowley said. “This is a waste of everyone’s time.”
With the conclusion of Monday’s hearing, the offer presented by the prosecution was formally withdrawn, leaving a trial date of Nov. 4 as the next date on the court calendar for de Groat. However, Van Houten said his office would put the offer presented Monday back on the table if de Groat requested it.
Ferguson is due back in Ithaca City Court at 9:30 a.m. Aug. 30.
After the hearing, de Groat said she was not opposed to going to trial, but said it is scary to be facing felony charges. She said she was disappointed the offer to drop all charges and go to mediation was off the table, and said she worried that a year of conditional discharge would put a target on her back. “It feels like people would be watching me, like the police would be on top of me,” she said.
De Groat said she doesn’t know what to expect from a trial and never expected any of this to happen — from the charges to the events of Monday’s hearing and the outpouring of community support.
“Throughout this whole process I’ve thought so much about how there are so many people who don’t have this community support, or who don’t have the resources that I have – who don’t have two lawyers. So many people would just end up going to prison for something like this, it’s happening all over the country. So I’m so incredibly lucky,” de Groat said outside the courthouse. “I’ve been thinking about how I can thank everyone for all of this effort, but there’s no words.”
Featured image: More than 100 people gathered at the Tompkins County Court for a hearing in Rose de Groat’s case on Monday, Aug. 26. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)
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