A Hanover County man who told police he was a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan was sentenced Tuesday to three years and eight months in jail for driving through a crowd of protesters in Henrico County last summer.
Harry Rogers, 37, pleaded guilty last week to five misdemeanors: three counts of assault, and one count each of destruction of property and hit and run. Each charge carried a penalty of up to a year in jail.
On Tuesday, Henrico Circuit Judge L.A. Harris Jr. sentenced Rogers to one year on each of the three assault charges, and to 12 months with eight months suspended on each of the other two charges.
Harris said he wasn’t sentencing Rogers because of his ties to the KKK or his beliefs, but rather his actions that day based on those beliefs. He added that sentences are not only meant to punish the perpetrator and prevent any future offense, but also to send a message to others.
“You cannot take these situations into your own hands,” Harris said, admonishing Rogers. “That leads to chaos.”
Harris said “everyone is very, very fortunate” that the incident on June 7 ended without serious injuries.
But several participants in the protest testified Tuesday that the encounter with Rogers left a lasting emotional toll on them.
Rachel Kurtz read a handwritten note from her 12-year-old son, who was walking along with Kurtz, her husband and their 5-year-old daughter, when Rogers passed them in the roadway.
“We were marching for a good cause to stop racism,” she said, reading the letter to the court. “But this guy’s action was for a terrible cause. I don’t like when people use hate to harm others.”
Kurtz said her son, who is small for his age but old enough to understand what happened, is struggling to comprehend why it happened.
“For once, he felt bigger than himself, proud for standing up for what’s right,” she told the court. “Rogers took that from him and replaced it with fear.”
“There shouldn’t be a next time,” she told Harris.
Rogers asked the judge for leniency.
“Maybe I didn’t make the right decisions that day, but we can’t rewind time,” he told the court.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor asked Harris to sentence Rogers to the maximum penalty of five years.
Rogers’ defense attorney, George Townsend, asked for just one month active time on each of the five charges, saying the prosecution was asking for punishment out of line with the crimes committed and other sentences for similar crimes.
“What they’re asking for is a disparate sentence just because of his connection to the KKK,” Townsend said.
In exchange for his plea, three felonies and a fourth count of assault were dropped by prosecutors. Rogers initially had been convicted in General District Court of six misdemeanors and sentenced to six years for those charges. (The additional count of assault was dropped because a third victim was never identified.)
He appealed those six convictions to Circuit Court, and then decided to plead guilty rather than go to trial, which was scheduled to begin Tuesday.
“We understand the court has imposed this lesser sentence. However, when I say ‘lesser,’ I certainly don’t want it to seem that it means it is any more insignificant,” Taylor said after Tuesday’s hearing.
She added that the laws in Virginia “are insufficient to address this type of conduct properly.”
Rogers was originally charged with a hate crime enhancement on each of the initial assault charges. But General District Judge Thomas O. Bondurant Jr. struck down the hate crime enhancement, agreeing with Townsend, who argued then that the victims, all of whom are white, were not targeted because of their race.
Taylor approached Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, about proposing a bill that sought to expand the definition of hate crimes within the state code to include “actual or perceived association” with a targeted community.
“This would help to address concerns that have happened in the past where individuals were targeted, not because they were part of a targeted community, but because they were associated with a protected community,” Hashmi explained during a Senate Judiciary committee hearing last month.
Taylor testified before the committee, saying that “because the individuals [Rogers] made contact with were also white,” she was unable to effectively argue to the court that his offenses should qualify as a hate crime.
“Just because the race of both parties was the same, that does not mean we shouldn’t be focusing on the intent of the defendant. Because our current law looks more at the victim and the victim’s characteristics than it does at the offender and his intent,” Taylor said. “We made the argument. The court did not agree because of the way the language of the code currently exists.”
The bill was also supported by the Anti-Defamation League, a national organization that fights anti-Semitism and helped draft the bill’s language; Equality Virginia, which advocates for LGBT individuals statewide; the Black Coalition of Change, a grassroots group for empowering the Black community; and the office of Attorney General Mark Herring. A representative of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers spoke in opposition.
The bill was passed over indefinitely by the committee in a 10-5 vote with several senators saying it was too broad.
“I don’t believe the court completely ignored the association with the Klan,” Taylor said, “because he did recognize that the decisions that the defendant made on that day were because of his beliefs.”
The incident unfolded around 5:45 p.m. on June 7.
Rogers, driving a blue Chevrolet pickup truck, was headed south on Lakeside Avenue toward the A.P. Hill monument when he passed a Black Lives Matter protest heading north on the divided roadway, just over the Richmond city line in Henrico.
He turned the truck around and drove onto the median northbound to catch up to the crowd, then re-entered the travel lanes, revved the engine and drove through protesters marching in the roadway.
At least two people were struck, though no one was seriously injured.
Townsend, Rogers’ attorney, argued that the only marchers who were struck deliberately put themselves in the path of the vehicle, which he described as moving “at a walking pace.”
After a water bottle hit the roof of the vehicle, in which Rogers’ girlfriend’s 14-year-old son was a passenger, Rogers stopped and exited the truck, puffing his chest and displaying a pistol on his hip.
Eventually, Rogers arrived back at the A.P. Hill monument, located within the city limits at the intersection of West Laburnum Avenue and Hermitage Road, which turns into Lakeside Avenue.
He took to social media boasting about what he’d done.
“They scattered like [expletive] cockroaches,” Rogers said in a Facebook live video he posted after the incident and shortly before he was arrested by Henrico police. “It’s kind of funny if you ask me.”