Two white men accused of showing up at a Black teenager’s home on the coast of North Carolina with guns and about a dozen other people in search of a missing girl last year have been acquitted on criminal charges.
One of the men was a deputy with the local sheriff’s office at the time.
Austin Wood and former New Hanover Sheriff’s Deputy Jordan Kita were found not guilty by Judge Chad Hogston in Pender County Superior Court on Thursday. The trial began Dec. 4 but was postponed several times because of COVID-19, the District Attorney’s Office previously told McClatchy News.
Wood and Kita are accused of leading an armed mob to Dameon Shepard’s door late one night in May. Shepard is Black, and the group was entirely white.
“What this verdict says today is the criminal intent of both Jordan Kita and Austin Woods was apparently not proven beyond a reasonable doubt but that doesn’t mean that the Shepard’s real fear wasn’t valid,” District Attorney Ben David said, WECT reported.
Kita was fired from his job and charged May 8 with misdemeanor breaking or entering, forcible trespassing and willful failure to discharge duties after David said he arrived at the Shepards “while armed and in uniform” on personal business. He was reportedly looking for his sister at the time, according to The Wilmington Star News.
Wood was charged with “going armed to the terror of the public,” which bars North Carolina citizens from arming themselves “for the purpose of terrifying others.”
A defense attorney representing Kita did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment Tuesday. Woody White, who represented Wood, said in a statement he is thankful his client was exonerated and that the case “was never about a racial mob.”
“Austin Wood should never have faced criminal charges in the first place,” he said.
Kita and Wood have also been named in a civil lawsuit filed last month in Pender County Superior Court. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which filed the case on behalf of Dameon Shepard and his mother Monica, said it was “disappointed in the outcome of the criminal trial.”
“The harm that the defendants caused our clients demonstrates that the nation’s, and indeed North Carolina’s, history of racist violence against Black people is far from over,” the nonprofit said in a statement Friday. “The fact that defendants did not stop to think how their actions — taken late at night, in a large group, while armed with multiple guns — would impact the Shepards, is evidence that white privilege remains alive and well.”
According to court documents, Dameon was a senior in high school when a group of about 15 individuals knocked on his door around 10 p.m. on May 3. He was reportedly playing video games at the time.
The group believed the missing teenage girl might be with someone named “Josiyah” who went to Topsail High School, his attorneys said. Shepard went to Laney High School, and there was a sign in the front yard with his name on it congratulating him on graduating.
Still, the group reportedly refused to leave, causing Dameon to become “very frightened and upset” and waking up his mom, the complaint said.
A neighbor eventually called 911 and the group dispersed before reconvening when law enforcement arrived. They stayed for roughly 10 minutes while deputies spoke to the Shepards but no arrests were made or names taken, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit alleges trespassing, assault, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, interference with civil rights and violations of the North Carolina Fair Housing Act.