VMFA Chapel Update: Statute of Limitations Edition
Earlier this month was the two-year anniversary of one of the most prominent and outspoken of the Virginia Flaggers, Norwood “Tripp” Lewis, being arrested for trespassing on the grounds of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Lewis was charged with “trespass after forbidden,” a Class 1 misdemeanor in the Commonwealth of Virginia, just short of a felony. Lewis was detained briefly and then released after being cited.
At the time, there was much shrieking from the Flaggers and their supporters that Lewis and one of his kids had been “roughed up” or “assaulted” by law enforcement. Significantly, though, two of the Flaggers’ prominent members with professional security or law enforcement experience, David Tatum and John Henry Taylor, declined to agree with that assessment.
About a month after Lewis’ arrest, Virginia Flagger Grayson Jennings put out the call for donations for his defense. The Lewis incident was bigger than the issue of one man’s misdemeanor charge, Jennings argued; the case would be an opportunity to vindicate not only Lewis but the Flaggers’ cause itself:
The forthcoming legal proceedings will offer us the chance to challenge the arbitrary and ever-changing restrictions placed on the Flaggers by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and allow a court of law to decide the constitutionality of restricting the display of a Confederate Flag on Virginia State Property, specifically designated as “Confederate Memorial Park.”
It will also allow us the opportunity to further expose the discriminatory and illegal act of the forced removal of Confederate flags from the portico of the Confederate Memorial Chapel and give us grounds to introduce this evidence into the public record via court proceedings and legal filings.
Jennings ended his appeal by including both a mailing address and a PayPal account where people could make donations. The request for funds was repeated in various SCV newsletters and at Dixie Outfitters.
Two months later, Lewis made a deal with prosecutors that the charges would be dropped in exchange for Lewis doing a certain number of hours of community service and agreeing to stay away from the private residences of VMFA officials. (Yes, a court actually had to make that an order.) Interestingly enough, according to Grayson, Lewis had originally wanted to do his community service volunteering at the chapel itself, but the SCV camp that operates it under lease from the VMFA refused — apparently they wanted no part of the Tripp Lewis spectacle, either.
Settling the trespassing case the way he did was a good deal for Lewis, but a terrible one for the Flaggers. Having solicited money to use the criminal case “to further expose the discriminatory and illegal act,” etc., they cannot have been happy when Lewis, looking square in the face of an almost-certain conviction on a serious misdemeanor charge, collapsed like a dollar-store lawn chair and made a deal that avoided a trial altogether. While the Flaggers may see Lewis as “a dedicated warrior in the battle to preserve our Heritage,” there are real limits to his dedication.
Nevertheless, Jennings and the Virginia Flaggers continued to solicit funds for Lewis, “to fund the civil lawsuits that will bring justice to those who have dishonored the Confederate Veterans who lived and died on the grounds of Confederate Memorial Park.” Lewis and the Virginia Flaggers, Jennings claimed, “have only yet begun to fight.” Jennings appended a long list of donors who had already contributed funds, as much as $250 each, to Lewis’ defense fund.
That was twenty-one months ago. Since then, Lewis has repeatedly made loud, boastful talk about filing a civil lawsuit (or several) over this incident, but it doesn’t appear that he has actually done so — which brings us to the significance of this month’s two-year anniversary.
As a general rule, Virginia law imposes a statute of limitations on most civil lawsuits. Specifically, the claims Lewis might conceivably try to make as a plaintiff — assault, personal injury, false imprisonment — all have a limit of two years under Virginia law. Which is to say, that faint bang you heard back on January 12 was the window of opportunity for Lewis to file his oft-threatened lawsuit, slamming shut.
The statute of limitations is not absolute; courts sometimes waive them when there are extenuating circumstances that would have prevented a case being filed within the specified period. In those cases, though, there is a burden for the plaintiff to show why a late claim should go forward; it’s a high bar, and it’s hard to imagine Lewis overcoming it. There is no long paper trail of discovery of evidence to sort through, the basic facts of the case have been well (and publicly) known from the first day, and much of the evidence of the confrontation has been sitting on YouTube for more than two years now. Having boasted for most of those two years about how he’s totally gonna sue and be vindicated on court — totally! — it will be interesting to see Lewis’ (and his supporters’) explanation for his inaction or, more likely, why the statute of limitations supposedly isn’t relevant in this case. It will be even more interesting to see whether the people who contributed their hard-earned money to Lewis’ efforts the “expose the discriminatory and illegal act of the forced removal of Confederate flags from the portico of the Confederate Memorial Chapel. . .” start asking for an accounting of where their money actually went.
Stay tuned, y’all.