DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Felony charges will be dropped against eight protesters accused of toppling a Confederate statue in North Carolina last year, and the demonstrators will be tried on misdemeanor charges, a prosecutor said Thursday.
The protesters were charged with felony rioting and misdemeanor property damage after the statue of an anonymous rebel fell Aug. 14 in the aftermath of a deadly white nationalist protest in Virginia.
"I only plan to try them on the misdemeanors," Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols said in an email. He declined further comment.
Eight defendants in the case appeared before a judge Thursday, and their trial was scheduled for Feb. 19. As each one's name was called, supporters in the courtroom said "witness" in unison to show solidarity.
The statue had been in front of a local government building. One Durham protester climbed a ladder to attach a rope while others pulled it down. Law enforcement officers watched and took video, but didn't take action during the protest.
A dozen protesters were initially charged. Charges were previously dismissed against three people because of a lack of evidence, and another entered a deferred prosecution deal to avoid a felony.
While statues elsewhere have been vandalized, the Durham case earned widespread attention because protesters succeeded in bringing it down. North Carolina, among the handful of Southern states with the most Confederate monuments, has a law preventing local officials from removing them.
In Virginia, a top Democratic lawmaker proposed a bill this week that would allow Virginia cities to remove or alter Confederate monuments. Republicans in the GOP-controlled legislature were doubtful it will pass.
After Thursday's hearing in Durham, two of the defendants said they believe that taking down the statue was the right thing to do, not a crime. They said supporters have been calling Echols' office to urge that charges be dropped.
"We want the courts to recognize what the people have been saying: that challenging and defeating white supremacy is not a crime," said Jess Jude.
Co-defendant Qasima Wideman said seeing the case through to trial will keep the issue in the public eye.
"Our hope is also that the trial and keeping this issue in the public view will help to ignite more people to feel empowered to fight racism and white supremacy in all its forms," Wideman said.
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Associated Press writer Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.