After initially believing they couldn’t reach a verdict, a Mobile County jury acquitted Chikesia Clemons of a disorderly conduct charge last week, but found her guilty of resisting arrest when police tried to take her into custody at the Saraland Waffle House in April 2018.
The split verdict marked the end of an unusual trial — one that included allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, a lengthy jury selection process and racial undertones.
Clemons was arrested on April 22, 2018, after staff at the Waffle House called police on her and two friends dining at the restaurant around 2:30 a.m. During the arrest, Clemons — a black woman — was taken to the ground by three white officers from the Saraland Police Department (SPD).
A video of the incident posted on social media by her friends made national news within a few hours.
Waffle House employees told police Clemons’ group came into the restaurant with an alcoholic beverage, refused to throw it away and then threatened staff during a heated vocal altercation. Clemons has denied that, and maintained throughout the trial that a waitress instigated an argument with her group after they asked for plastic utensils and called police less than two and a half minutes after they arrived.
The charge was only a misdemeanor and Clemons was only facing a small fine and probation from her 2018 conviction in Saraland Municipal Court. However, when asked about the decision to appeal the case to Circuit Court, her attorney, Marcus Foxx, said every charge is important to the accused.
“For anybody who is charged with a criminal offense, it’s important to them. Whether it’s a misdemeanor, a felony or a capital murder charge, people’s liberties are at stake, their lives are at stake,” he said. “That’s been the thing that’s polarized so many people [about Clemons’ arrest]. When you’re viewing a person in that situation, you understand that it’s more than just a charge, someone’s life is at stake.”
Saraland prosecutor Jeff Perloff had less to say when the verdicts came down Friday evening. After two days of jury selection and three days of testimony, he kept his comments to reporters on the scene brief.
“It’s been a long week,” Perloff said. “I respect the process, and the jury got to decide.”
Despite the length of time it took prosecutors to present their case, which included testimony from two police officers and three Waffle House employees, it can really be boiled down to a simple yes or no question. Did Chikesia Clemons say the words “F**k you! I’ll come across this counter, and I’ll beat your ass!”?
That’s what Officer Christopher Ramey said he heard Clemons say to Waffle House manager Goldie Mincey when the officer first entered the restaurant that morning. More importantly, that phrase is the basis of the official complaint he signed in order to charge her with a misdemeanor disorderly conduct offense.
The problem for prosecutors was, despite hours of security video from the restaurant and a widely distributed Snapchat recording of Clemons’ arrest, there was nothing that recorded the audio of what happened as Ramey entered the restaurant, approached Clemons and attempted to restrain her.
Jurors were asked to decide who said what — and when — based solely on the testimony of a handful of people who were at the Waffle House that morning a year and four months ago. On the stand, there were a number of contradictions in what witnesses claimed to remember, which left jurors with the responsibility of judging the credibility of each witness and their respective testimony.
Ramey and Mincey testified to hearing Clemons say “F**k you! I’ll come across this counter, and I’ll beat your ass!,” but some witnesses for the prosecution told the jury they weren’t sure who said it. Others claimed they didn’t hear it, weren’t paying attention or wouldn’t have been able to hear it if it was said.
All of the defense witnesses denied hearing it. Though, Perloff did repeatedly point to testimony one defense witness gave at the municipal trial last July indicating Clemons had indeed uttered the phrase. However, that witness was unable to appear and testify before the jury during Clemons’ trial last week.
Prosecutors also faced another hurdle due to a slip up Perloff made when questioning some witnesses.
Less than an hour after Clemons’ arrest on April 22, 2018, more than 400 miles to the north of Saraland in Nashville, Tennessee, a man named Travis Jeffrey Reinking entered a Waffle House and opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle — killing four patrons and wounding two others.
During Clemons’ trial, though, Perloff represented the incident in Nashville had taken place the night before she was arrested, and he went on to question three witnesses who worked at the Saraland Waffle House about whether the Nashville shooting impacted their state of mind on the night of Clemons’ arrest.
All three said it had and one even said he’d been told about it when he arrived at work for that shift — none of which could have possibly been true given the timing of those events. Clemons, who appeared to be taking notes throughout the trial, actually caught that mistake herself and told Foxx.
The next day, Foxx filed a motion to dismiss Clemons’ charges based on “prosecutorial misconduct,” and went on to accuse Perloff of intentionally leading witnesses to provide false testimony. He also questioned how some of the questions that led to comments about the Nashville shooting were very general like —“What happened the night before?” — but still led to very specific answers about the shooting.
Perloff denied the misstep was intentional and said he didn’t ask subsequent witnesses the same question once he realized what had happened. However, Foxx also noted if Perloff was aware of the mistake before he filed his motion to dismiss, he didn’t make any effort to notify the court and correct it.
Ultimately, Judge Brandy Hambright denied the motion to dismiss the charges, though she did inform the jury any testimony about the shooting and the questions that led to it weren’t factual and should be disregarded. She said they’d have to decide what weight to give the rest of those witnesses’ testimony.
In his closing arguments, Foxx focused on that heavily, repeatedly telling jurors: “If a witness testifies falsely to any material evidence, you can disregard their entire testimony.” As for the prosecutors, they closed their case out by reviewing video footage of the incident and reminding jurors one of the defense’s own witnesses had previously testified Clemons had threatened Mincey.
After a couple of hours in deliberation, the jury appeared to be headed for a deadlock and told the court they had most likely hit an impasse. That led Hambright to read jurors the Allen charge. Often referred to as the “dynamite charge,” it instructs the jury to try and reach a unanimous resolution because a retrial with different jurors would cost additional taxpayer money and likely wouldn’t end with a different result.
The jury returned to deliberation and came back with its pair of verdicts around 8 p.m. Friday evening.
After the trial concluded, and a gag order preventing the attorneys involved from discussing it publicly was lifted, Foxx told reporters he plans to file a motion challenging Clemons’ resisting arrest conviction, which, based on the jury’s decision, stemmed from an unwarranted disorderly conduct charge.
As a result of the trial, the city of Saraland won’t be able to retry Clemons for disorderly conduct.
It’s unclear how it might proceed if the resisting arrest charge is challenged in some type of post-trial filing. Either way, once the criminal proceeding is resolved, Clemons is expected to move forward with a civil lawsuit against the city, for which she has already filed a notice of claim.
For those proceedings, Clemons is being represented by civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who has spoken on behalf of her and her family on several occasions since she was arrested in 2018. Lagniappe has requested a copy of Clemons’ notice of claim from the city of Saraland but has yet to receive one.
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