VMFA Trepass Case Update
Norwood B. “Tripp” Lewis III will be arraigned at 9 a.m. Monday in Richmond on a Class 1 Misdemeanor charge of “trespass after having been forbidden to do so” (Code of Virginia § 18.2-119). This is a more serious charge than (say) creeping around a cemetery at night, or trespass on school or church property which, unless compounded by other bad acts or intent, are considered lower-level misdemeanors. Lewis was apparently charged with a more serious offense by virtue of the fact that he had been repeatedly warned off the property previously. Lewis is expected to enter a plea of not guilty, in which case a trial date will be set by the court.
In thinking about this case, I realize that I have an analogous circumstance myself. Lewis’ actions, on January 12, were claimed by him to be in honor of his ancestor, who was admitted to what was then the Confederate Home on that property. I have a Confederate ancestor who settled here in Texas after the war, whose property was bought many years later by the state, and a public university built on that land. I’ve even read that the site where my ancestor’s home once stood is now occupied by the university’s student center.
There are similarities with the situation at VMFA. The land in Texas is owned by the state, but administered under law by a publicly-chartered organization, with its own security and the authority to set its own rules. The spot where my relative’s house stood is, within the context of a university, a public space. Could I march up and down in front of the student center with a Confederate flag and uniform to “honor” that relative? Sure. Do I have an inherent right to do so, even if campus police order me off the premises? Does the claim that I’m “honoring my ancestor” provide an affirmative defense against what is otherwise defined by state law as a criminal act? I doubt many courts, at any level and in any jurisdiction, are going to buy that argument. For that matter, I doubt many would even entertain it as a defense, since the charge Lewis is facing — “trespass after having been forbidden to do so” — is extremely narrow, and easily provable by the prosecution. (“Did you tell him not to come back on the property?” “Yes.” “Did he?” “Yes.”) Even on the larger issue of whether Lewis and other Flaggers are within their rights to protest on the VMFA grounds, some of their supporters believe that violates the law. One true Confederate, whose commitment to the Flaggers’ cause has never been doubted, was blunt in his assessment: “the Flaggers ‘BY LAW’ have no right to go on VMFA property.“
Mr. Lewis has a lot to think about this weekend. He has an absolute right to pursue this case and defend his actions as best he can. But I cannot see it ending well for either him or his supporters in the end.
Update, February 4: Lewis received a continuance Monday until new hearing, now scheduled for March 22, with the notation “appoint attorney.” I don’t know if that indicates a request for more time to hire a private attorney, or a request to have the court appoint one for him.
Update, February 7: As Dave Tatum points out in the comments, at Monday’s hearing the state and the VMFA requested an order barring Lewis from the property, which was denied. Both the motion and the court’s denial seem routine to me in a trespassing case of this sort.