Shortly after 9:30 Monday morning, citizen journalist Nydia Tisdale will stand before Judge Martha Christian in a Dawson County courthouse for sentencing on her recent conviction on misdemeanor obstruction of a law enforcement officer in the now-infamous “PumpkinGate” case.
Anything short of Christian overturning the guilty verdict will be an unseemly miscarriage of justice by a jury that seems to have had little regard for the standard of “reasonable doubt.”
The jury’s verdict may have been an attempt to appease everyone in the case by rendering not guilty verdicts for felony obstruction and misdemeanor trespassing while finding her guilty of something. After all, the jurors have to live in Dawson County.
This, however, is a case that never should have seen the inside of a courtroom, much less made it to a jury.
Instead, it became a national cause celebre for journalists and an embarrassment for the people of Dawson County, the county Sheriff’s Office and, more significantly, the Republican Party of Georgia.
Tisdale is the peripatetic videographer who shows up at public meetings and political gatherings across northeast Georgia, sets up her camera, records the events and then posts the videos without commentary to her website.
She is not a journalist in the traditional sense, in that she does not work for any accredited news agency. Instead, she performs a public service that traditional media outlets either will not because of a lack of manpower or interest, or cannot because of budgetary limits. She simply lets the camera roll and gives the public the opportunity to make its own judgments on what she has recorded.
That appears to have been Tisdale’s intent when she went to Burt’s Pumpkin Farm in Dawson County in August 2014 to record a rally featuring most of the Republican heavy hitters in the state, including Gov. Nathan Deal. The event was advertised on several media platforms as free and open to the public.
And here’s where we begin our exploration of the obvious reasonable doubts that seemed so obvious to me during the several days of testimony I witnessed, doubts that should have been obvious to the jurors.
- Reasonable Doubt No. 1: Was this a political campaign rally free and open to the public as advertised or was Tisdale trespassing on private property who refused to leave when asked by the owners?
The jury decided Tisdale had every right to be there and to make a record of the event, including her arrest. She was not trespassing.
It was clear from all parties that neither Johnny nor Kathy Burt, owners of the farm, ever personally asked Tisdale to stop filming or to leave their farm. Instead, the “stop filming” request was initiated by Clint Bearden, a Republican operative and magistrate judge in Dawson County.
Bearden, who also is on a short list for superior court judges in the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, which includes Hall and Dawson counties, apparently became concerned by remarks made by Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens.
Hudgens told the audience that after hearing something Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn said: “I thought I was going to puke.”
Bearden testified that after those remarks, “Hudgens was upset about somebody filming and what he had said. He said: ‘I want to get that videotape.’”
Bearden said he then went to the Burts and told them “campaigns were concerned about the filming.”
But not a single candidate, including Hudgens, testified that they had any objections to Tisdale or anyone else filming the rally. Hudgens even testified that “I didn’t say anything I was ashamed of.”
And Labor Commissioner Mark Butler, who was speaking when Tisdale was hustled out of the rally, told the jury: “In politics you pretty much assume you’re being recorded all the time.”
So it was not the Burts who asked Tisdale to stop filming. Rather, it was Bearden and there is reasonable doubt as to whether he was acting as the Burts’ representative or was more concerned about protecting the Georgia GOP and his future in it.
- Reasonable Doubt No. 2: Was Dawson County Sheriff’s Capt. Tony Wooten on duty or off duty when he manhandled Tisdale out of the meeting and held her captive until backup arrived with handcuffs (he apparently did not have any with him at the time).
Wooten, in his somewhat defensive and combative testimony, claimed he was on duty. But a sheriff’s department log shows he was on what is referred to as “extra duty,” raising doubts about his authority to arrest Tisdale for anything short of her committing a felony.
All testimony indicated that Tisdale was doing nothing more than sitting quietly, looking through the viewfinder of her camera.
- Reasonable Doubt No. 3: This is perhaps the most important of the reasonable doubts. It concerns whether Wooten properly identified himself as a law enforcement officer before grabbing Tisdale and hustling her out of the rally.
Tisdale testified he did not tell her who he was.
Wooten and others testified she should have known he was a law enforcement officer because while not wearing the standard Dawson County sheriff’s uniform, he was dressed in khaki pants and a black polo shirt with a Dawson County Sheriff’s Office badge embroidered on the left front breast area. He also had a badge on his belt and was carrying his service weapon.
But Tisdale is not from Dawson County, did not know Wooten and had no idea what a county deputy working “extra duty” wore.
In addition, Wooten approached her from behind as she was looking through the camera’s viewfinder and testimony indicated he did not ask her quietly to go with him to sort things out without making a scene, but grabbed her and roughly removed her from the rally.
Her repeated shouted questions to Wooten: “What is your name? Sir? What is your name?” with no response from Wooten, is enough reasonable doubt to conclude that any reasonable person would struggle just as she did.
The jury concluded that her struggle did not rise to the level of a felony, which would have involved her actually striking Wooten. Tisdale testified that had Wooten properly identified himself or if the Burts had asked her to stop filming, she would have.
There is precedence for Tisdale complying with law enforcement to stop filming a public event. In 2012 she was ejected, peacefully, from a Cumming City Commission meeting when then-Mayor H. Ford Gravitt objected to her filming and a uniformed officer told her she had to stop.
Tisdale left but sued in federal court and won a $200,000 settlement against the city
But Christian, the judge in this case, would not allow testimony about that event into record, narrowly restricting evidence and testimony to the events of August 2014.
In the end, not only was this a case of prosecutorial overreach that never should have made it this far, there was sufficient reasonable doubt for the jury to have found Tisdale not guilty on all charges.
Tisdale now faces a fine, jail time and a criminal record unless Christian sets aside the verdict or grants her first offender status.
No matter the sentence, Tisdale will emerge as a winner in this. Not so the people of Dawson County, the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office and the Georgia GOP, all of whom will be paying for this in one way or another for a long time to come.
Ron Martz is Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator whose commentaries appear regularly. He lives in Northeast Georgia'; email, email@example.com.