Case Dismissed Against Confederate Monument Protester Accused Of False Report
Calloway County Attorney Bryan Ernstberger moved to dismiss the court case against a Murray woman accused of making a false report to police following an altercation last year at a local Confederate monument. As a part of the dismissal Tuesday, agreed upon by the defense and the county attorney, a document was submitted in court acknowledging an affidavit submitted to police by the woman, stating a man at the monument had slapped her hand, was “an error.”
This dismissal of the misdemeanor charge follows months of court proceedings being delayed by the pandemic since the altercation took place last summer. A social media video from August of 2020 shows Linda Arakelyan blocking water from a hose being used by William “Sandy” Forrest to erase chalk drawings made by protesters calling for the removal of the monument. The video shows Forrest briefly spraying her in the face and the two momentarily making physical contact.
The acknowledgment document states along with the error in the affidavit, Arakelyan made brief contact with the nozzle of the hose and Forrest’s arm, which Arakelyan mistook for being a slap. The document also states that was the only physical contact between Arakelyan and Forrest.
Attorney Chris Hendricks, representing Arakelyan, said this acknowledgment of error was the result of months of negotiations on the wording of the acknowledgment between the prosecution and defense.
“Instead of taking it to trial and taking the chance with a jury, we did it this way with the certainty that it would be dismissed,” Hendricks said. “That’s the perfect outcome.”
In an interview Tuesday, Ernstberger said he believes the case dismissal was justice served and that he didn’t believe, given the high tensions of the situation, the actions of either Arakelyan or Forrest “deserve punishment in the traditional sense.”
“She acknowledged that when she swore that Mr. Forrest had slapped her that that was incorrect, and that he didn't do that. Now that she’s acknowledged that, I think that the dismissal was appropriate,” Ernstberger said. “I think it was a scenario where tensions were running high, and I think, perhaps, ordinarily, reasonable people acted unreasonably on both sides.”
Grand Jury Questions
Arakelyan was charged last year when Ernstberger presented evidence from the incident, including affidavits and two separate videos, to a county grand jury to decide what charges, if any, should be brought forward. Ernstberger said he presented to the grand jury options to charge Arakelyan with false reporting, or charge Forrest with harassment. He said the grand jury at that time decided to charge Arakelyan and not Forrest.
One local advocacy group focusing on multiple issues involving women’s rights, West KY NOW, had previously raised questions regarding the legitimacy of Arakelyan’s charge and why Forrest, the man viewed by the organization as Arakelyan’s harasser, had not been charged. This local case took place amid a nationwide conversation surrounding the traditionally secretive process of grand jury proceedings, spurred in particular by the grand jury proceeding involving the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville. Grand jury proceedings are traditionally kept secret to protect the reputations of grand jurors, to protect the reputation of those who end up not being charged and to encourage reluctant witnesses to testify. Critics of grand jury proceedings generally say jurors follow along with whatever charges prosecutors are seeking.
Previously when a trial was still a possibility, Defense Attorney Chris Hendricks had said that a grand jury doesn’t have the benefit of hearing arguments and evidence presented by a defense when deciding whether there is probable cause to charge someone, and that a grand jury “is what a prosecutor wants it to be.”
In the Tuesday interview, Ernstberger further explained his reasoning to use a grand jury for this case. He said he wanted to let the county grand jury last year decide whether to charge Arakelyan or Forrest to avoid any perceived bias in the justice system if the decision was made solely by himself or local law enforcement, given the politically-charged nature of the incident. Ernstberger last year rejected two attempts by the Murray Police Department to charge Forrest with a violation of harassment because he didn’t believe the requests articulated probable cause for the charge. MPD only pursued charges against Forrest.
“The public should have confidence, or I would hope they would have confidence, that 12 of their neighbors, family members or students or other members of the community have made this choice,” Ernstberger said. “As far as the grand jury being some type of puppet, I can tell you from my experience, that's not true at all.”
Ernstberger said in his experience, there had been numerous occasions where grand juries have decided against charges prosecutors have wanted in a case. He said for those who may not trust the criminal justice system, he hopes they’ll become more informed on how the grand jury process works.
“I have faith in what the grand jury does,” Ernstberger said. “If they do something different than what I want, that's instructive. I mean, that tells me that perhaps on that issue, I'm not aligned with the public. And you know, I think it's my duty to try to align with the people that elected me.”
Ernstberger also said he believes public perception of the altercation has been misconstrued based on a screenshot from a video that shows a moment when Forrest was spraying Arakelyan in the face, despite the fuller context of a video showing the water “moving from side to side.” He said he presented the evidence available to him to a grand jury, including a video recorded from the county courthouse.
West KY NOW President Catherine Bates said despite her organization disagreeing with the charge in the first place, she is pleased with the case dismissal as a way to move beyond the incident. She said one of the main messages of her organization moving forward from the incident is accountability of elected officials.
“It's important for [Ernstberger] to know that the community is paying attention,” Bates said. “What is the leadership in this community doing? What are the choices they're making?”