A Rocky Mount man’s felony conviction for hanging a noose in his yard will stand, based on a decision this week by the Virginia Court of Appeals.
Jack Eugene Turner, 53, has admitted he used a rope to suspend a dark-colored, life-sized dummy in his yard during a 2015 feud with his neighbors, a black family.
At a bench trial last year in Franklin County Circuit Court, Turner was found guilty of violating a state law, passed in 2009, which prohibits displaying a noose to intimidate someone. He was sentenced to six months in jail and served his time, but earlier this year, defense attorney Holland Perdue appealed the case.
In September, a three-judge panel heard arguments from Perdue and from Assistant Attorney General Christopher Schandevel, who said Turner’s actions constituted unprotected threats no matter where they occurred.
As he had during Turner’s trial, Perdue claimed that Turner’s display was protected as free speech under the First Amendment, and also that it occurred on Turner’s own private property and not “on a highway or other public place” as the statute prohibits.
In a 16-page opinion released Tuesday, Judge Robert Humphreys affirmed Turner’s conviction.
“The evidence was sufficient to support the circuit court’s conclusion that the offense occurred in a public place,” Humphreys wrote, adding that Turner’s act violated the law because “Turner displayed a noose and dummy in a place and manner to communicate threats to others with the intent to place members of the public in fear of violence and bodily harm.”
While he acknowledged the importance of free speech, and that “the First Amendment protects Turner’s right to be a racist and even to convey his racist beliefs to others,” he later added that a “constitutional limit to that allowance has been reached when an idea becomes a threat that causes reasonable people to fear leaving their homes.”
At Turner’s trial, one of the victims in the case, neighbor John Mitchell, testified to just that.
“If he can hang a noose, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I fear for my family’s safety,” Mitchell said in court. “Every morning, I walk out my door. Is somebody going to shoot me in the back?”
The hanging dummy appeared in Turner’s yard the afternoon of June 17, 2015, just a few hours before a mass shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine people dead.
Although police confiscated Turner’s display soon after it appeared, Turner later hung a Confederate flag on his porch and another in a window that faces the Mitchell home.
Between his trial and his sentencing, Turner was rearrested for violating the terms of his bond by posting a spray-painted sign in his yard that read: “Black n----- lives don’t matter. Got rope?”
Turner is the first person in Virginia to be convicted under the relatively new noose law. A Class 6 felony, it carries up to five years in prison and a $2,500 fine.
The week before Turner’s case was heard by the appeals court, he sent a handwritten letter to The Roanoke Times. Although the note did not acknowledge the incidents or the displays, he asked for forgiveness.
“I would like to apologize to all Roanoke to Christiansburg and surrounding area African-Americans for my senseless and cruel actions,” Turner wrote.
Reached Tuesday, Perdue said he respected the court’s decision but still plans to pursue the matter further.
“We’re looking forward to appealing it to the Supreme Court of Virginia,” he said. “We believe that your yard is a private place, private property, and not a public place.”