Tense standoff follows conviction of Latin Kings leader

by Jordan Green

Members of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation accompanied by the Rev. Nelson Johnson retreated down a hallway of the Guilford County Courthouse today as K-9 unit pursued them. (photo by Jordan Green)

A confrontation ensued in the hallway outside of Guilford County Courtroom 3C last week following a verdict by a jury of 12 finding North Carolina Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation leader Jorge Cornell guilty of misdemeanor resisting a public officer stemming from an arrest at a downtown street festival in August 2009.

Cornell and about six members of the Latin Kings appeared in court for closing arguments on the final day of the trial wearing gold shirts, part of the group’s traditional colors. Greensboro police Officer Roman Watkins, who filed the charge against Cornell and who testified the previous day, also returned for the last day of the trial. After the verdict was read, Watkins, a member of the department’s gang unit, embraced prosecutor Rosetta Davidson.

As they were leaving the courtroom some Latin Kings members put on ball caps, and bailiffs instructed them to remove the hats.

Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Anna Mills Wagoner of Rowan County sentenced Cornell to one year supervised probation, a 45-day suspended sentence, 24 hours of community service and a $100 fine, along with court fees and probation costs. Based on the previous experience of another member, Cornell expressed concern that he would be placed under some kind of special probation after the fact.

“This sounds like a setup,” he said, conferring with his lawyer and a court officer out in the hallway. “I’ve seen a lot of people given regular supervised probation and they can’t have no association with other members of their nation, they can’t wear their colors, they have to be under a 6 o’clock curfew.

As Latin Kings members and supporters huddled in the hallway conference to discuss the implications of the sentence, a group of bailiffs massed behind them. Cornell complained that the bailiffs were putting their hands on his members and directed his members to line up against the bailiffs.

“You’ve got to clear the hallway,” one of the bailiffs said loudly. As the tension escalated, the Rev. Nelson Johnson took Jorge by the arm and escorted him down the hall to the elevator, as the rest of the crowd followed. Soon, a K9 unit was on the scene and following the group. A radio call was placed to the Greensboro Police Department, and about eight officers materialized out of a side hallway.

“This is our courthouse,” the K-9 handler said to one of her colleagues.

“I don’t have to kiss anybody’s ass.”

After Cornell and his group had exited on the elevator, one of the bailiffs informed a police officer: “Y’all might want to send out an e-mail because Jorge just got supervised probation and he ain’t happy.”

Cornell’s frustration had been building throughout the trial. On the second day during a break, Cornell said outside in the hallway:

“Let it be known that the judge is horrible. We’re gonna go after her. We went after the police department and the DAs office. We’re gonna investigate her next. This crooked system has got to stop.”

Judge Wagoner had sustained objection after objection by the prosecution to Johnson’s testimony about his work with Cornell. Johnson had not been present at the arrest and could not testify directly about it. Eric Ginsburg, considered by Cornell’s supporters to be the star witness, did not appear in court to testify.

At the time of the arrest, Cornell was a month into a campaign for an at-large seat on Greensboro City Council. Ginsburg, a Guilford College student, was Cornell’s campaign manager. Ginsburg is now an intern at YES! Weekly, and holds a second internship at North Carolina Public Radio in Durham.

Based on a phone conversation with Cornell, Ginsburg had initially thought he would be needed to testify on Monday afternoon and left his internship at YES! Weekly to appear in court before hearing from Cornell’s lawyer that he wouldn’t be needed that day after all.

Testimony was heard instead on Tuesday, which is the one day of the week Ginsburg works at his public radio internship in Durham. Ginsburg said he asked Cornell’s lawyer if he could be the first to testify on Tuesday morning, so he could leave for his internship, but he said he didn’t hear back until later that day. Citing the defense team’s short notice and his obligations at the internship, he decided to go to Durham instead of waiting to be called to testify.

The jury asked at least twice during deliberations to watch a video shot by Ginsburg that shows a verbal exchange between Cornell and Watkins at a street festival at the intersection of South Elm and McGee streets where an outdoor bluegrass concert was taking place. Cornell had testified that he and Ginsburg arrived at the event with his girlfriend and another college student who was volunteering with the campaign. They had planned to meet Latin Kings Wesley Williams, Carlos Coleman and Samuel Velasquez, along with Cornell’s two daughters. At the time, Cornell said had legal custody of Williams.

Cornell testified that Ginsburg and Williams, who are both more than 6 feet tall, spotted each other in the crowd and waved to each other. Around that time, Cornell said he saw two police officers, one of whom was Watkins, trying to talk to the members of his group, and that he walked around to make sure his daughters and Williams were okay.

Prosecutor Rosetta Davidson questioned Cornell on the stand about whether the members of his group were throwing gang signs.

He said they were not. In her closing argument, Davidson said the police officers had seen people dressed in red in the crowd, suggesting they had reason to believe there were members of the Bloods street gang present and the officers were concerned about trying to maintain the peace between the groups. Contradicting that premise, Johnson and Cornell testified that Cornell had established a peace agreement with the Bloods in 2008 although there had been no previous tensions. Both said nothing had transpired in the meantime to disturb the peace.

In the video Watkins can be seen telling Cornell: “You get away from me. I’m talking to them. I’m not talking to you.”

Cornell responds, “You don’t gotta talk to them. They’re fine. We’re just here to have a good time. Everybody see this? We’re just here to have a good time.”

During redirect, Cornell testified, “I’ve been with that nation since 1995. That is the cross that I choose to bear. There’s beautiful history of the nation and there’s bad history. I choose to dwell on the positive. I wouldn’t be true to myself if I let society dictate to me the way I live my life.”

Davidson told the jury: “This case hinges on two things: The defendant’s disobedience and blatant disrespect for authority.”

She tried to cast doubt on Cornell’s testimony that he walked over to the officers because he was concerned about the welfare of his daughters and Williams.

“At no point do we hear the defendant ask about Wesley Williams or about his daughters,” Davidson argued. “And if it’s about parenting, it’s bad parenting. Why would you do this in front of your daughters?” During a post-trial meeting afterwards at the Beloved Community Center, Cornell and his supporters planned their next move.

“This case was lost on two things,” Johnson said. “The lawyer was not very aggressive. And your star witness didn’t show.”

Cornell said after the verdict he learned that one of the jurors had been overheard in the gallery saying that she had been present at the August 2009 bluegrass concert. Later, he said, during jury selection she got on the stand and said that she had not been present.

Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham, said in a conference call: “From what I just heard, you had a juror lie to get on the jury. That taints the jury pool.”

Cornell filed an appeal the following day Johnson and another clergyman, the Rev. Randall Keeney, cautioned Cornell against provocative behavior after the trial.

“Gandhi said, ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win,’” Keeney said. “They’ve ignored you and they’ve laughed at you. Now, they’re fighting you. You’re gonna win. If you let them bring the dog in and provoke you, then they win.”

Keeney also recommended that Cornell get rid of some machetes at his house to avoid violating the terms of his parole.

Considering that the original meeting about sentencing terms had been aborted because of the hallway confrontation, Johnson reminded Cornell that they needed to return to the courthouse to finish their business. He advised against the full group going in to meet with the court officer.

“I suggest one or two people go with Jorge, sign the paper and leave,” Johnson said. “I’m convinced that they would like nothing better than what they almost got. It’s to y’all’s credit that you walked away. That’s not weakness; that’s actually power.”