PENDER COUNTY – After Jordan Kita and Austin Wood were found not guilty of criminal charges associated with leading an all-white, armed group of about 15 to the home of a Black family in May, their lawyers are demanding the mother and son apologize for defaming their clients. If the family doesn’t comply, the lawyers are threatening a countersuit.
Asked if they intend to issue an apology, attorneys from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who are pursuing a civil suit on behalf of mother and son Monica and Dameon Shepard, say the facts have not changed.
“The fact that defendants were able to go to the home of a young Black teenager, armed, in a large group, late at night and think that they could enter and speak with him, and didn’t have to think twice really about the context, I think, really illustrates the type of white privilege that is at work,” lawyer Arusha Gordon said on a phone call Wednesday, “both here as well as in the other types of cases we refer to.”
Gordon is the associate director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s James Byrd Jr. Center to Stop Hate, which focuses on combating prejudice-motivated crimes and acts of white supremacy. The nonprofit organization, established in the ‘60s at the request of President John F. Kennedy, is representing the Shepards in a suit against members of whom they’re calling a “mob.” The Lea/Shultz Law Firm is partnering in the litigation filed in Pender County Superior Court last month.
The Lawyers’ Committee is simultaneously working on multiple cases across the nation. In D.C. Superior court, the organization has filed a suit against the far-right group Proud Boys for vandalizing a Black Lives Matter sign at an African Methodist Episcopal church in December. In West Virginia, the attorneys are seeking justice on behalf of a Black man who was permanently injured by police accused of using excessive force in early 2019.
The Pender County case is a complaint against the men who approached the Shepard’s house May 3, including Kita, Kita’s father Timothy, Wood and 12 “John and Jane Does.”
At the time of the confrontation, the men were searching for a missing 15-year-old girl who is biracial and was suspected to be with a Black teenager. Kita, a sheriff’s deputy at the time, was in uniform and armed, though off duty. According to the complaint, the men “banged” on the door of the Shepards, then ignored pleas from the son and mother that they had the wrong person, and attempted to force entry into the house.
The Shepards had no ties to the missing girl. She was found safe the following day.
Kita was fired from his position with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office and faced charges of willful failure to discharge duties, forcible trespass, and breaking and entering.
Wood was charged with “going armed to the terror of the public.” Both were acquitted.
“Our clients are disappointed in the outcome of the trial,” said Jennifer Nwachukwu, another counsel representing the Shepard family. “But we will continue to fight for our clients in the civil litigation that we have pending.”
The complaint accuses the defendants of trespassing, assault, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and violations of state civil rights and fair housing statutes.
Now that both men have been found not guilty – and both have apologized for the incident in court – attorneys are indicating their clients will retaliate legally if the Shepards do not express regret for damaging the Kitas’ and Wood’s reputations.
The Shepard’s attorneys suggested this threat of a countersuit is an attempt to create a diversion from the group’s actions that night.
“I think that’s a distraction from the issues at the heart of the case,” Gordon said, “which is really the fact that defendants went armed in a large group late at night, to the home of a young Black teenager and tried to enter.”
As to whether the Shepards have any intention of apologizing, Gordon stated, “We don’t see that any of the facts have changed.”
On Thursday attorney James Rutherford, representing the Kitas, said he mulled over providing an updated comment but concluded he would let Kita’s “exoneration speak for itself.” He confirmed a countersuit is still being discussed.
In a Jan. 28 statement, after the announcement of the civil suit, Rutherford accused the Shepard’s lawyers of attempting to extort money and destroy the Kita name “with a lie.” He said the family has received death threats and people have followed their children.
“The Kita family is not racist,” Rutherford said. “They are a loving blended family full of inclusion.”
In a letter to Port City Daily this week, Wood shared accounts of similar threats he received because of a “twisted narrative” in the news and on social media.
Attorney Woody White, representing Wood, has accused the Shepards and their lawyers of appropriating “real victims of racism” such as Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, both of whom are referenced in the complaint.
The complaint, which refers to the group that approached the Shepard’s home as a “mob” throughout its entirety, compares the May 3 incident to other occurrences of violence against Black men in North Carolina.
“You really can’t divorce that history from this case, and how the Shepards saw what was happening and what it meant to them, as a Black mother of a Black teenage boy,” Gordon said. “They are both very well aware of the history of violence against Black men and boys in our country. That history made this interaction particularly terrifying.”
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