A Richmond judge ordered a New York activist who exposed her breast outside the Capitol during a protest in support of the Equal Rights Amendment to remain in jail without bond on a misdemeanor charge of indecent exposure until her court date on March 21.
Holding someone without bond on a nonviolent misdemeanor is unusual. Supporters of ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment said Michelle Renay Sutherland, 45, is a political prisoner.
Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring said by email late Wednesday afternoon that he and Sutherland’s defense attorney are asking that she be released from jail with a promise to appear on her court date. Herring said the judge could sign an order for her release.
Capitol Police on Monday arrested Sutherland, who goes by the name Sister Leona, when she and another activist mimicked the Virginia seal in a bit of performance art. It was aimed at House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, and House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, who are trying to stop an ERA ratification measure from getting to a floor vote in the House.
Sutherland stood over fellow activist Natalie White, who was with the group Equal Means Equal, and represented the Roman goddess Virtus on the state seal, resting her left foot on the form of Tyranny, represented by the prostrate body of a man. White was lying on the ground to represent the man.
“They’re putting the goddess of virtue in jail and this is the goddess that is on the seal of Virginia overthrowing a tyrant,” White said. “You know that this is coming from a political standpoint.”
A magistrate on Monday set a secured bail of $700 for Sutherland, an artist who has lived in Brooklyn for five years and has no criminal record, according to Richmond General District Court records. But during a video arraignment Tuesday, Judge Lawrence B. Cann III ordered Sutherland to be held without bond. Cann, the court’s chief judge, declined to be interviewed.
Kevin Martingayle, a lawyer in Virginia Beach and past president of the Virginia State Bar, said holding Sutherland without bond is unusual.
“What the woman did in re-enacting the flag/seal is classic political speech entitled to the highest free speech protection known to law,” he said by email. “She should win and the denial of bond seems to be totally inappropriate. I am very surprised to see that done in a case in which she’d be unlikely to get jail time even if convicted.”
Holding someone in jail is serious, he said in an interview.
“Anybody who thinks sitting in jail is a small thing, go ask if they’ll have you as an overnight guest and see how you like it,” Martingayle said.
According to a report by the State Compensation Board, each inmate costs the Richmond city jail $91.44 per day in operating costs. At 32 days of incarceration, that would bring the total to hold Sutherland in the jail to $2,926.08.
Advocates say that if Virginia becomes the 38th state to ratify the ERA, it will be added to the U.S. Constitution. Opponents say the deadline has long expired.
Republican delegates this week said in House floor speeches that they believed the ERA was about abortion and cited rulings from state courts in Texas in 2001, Connecticut in 1986 and New Mexico in 1999 saying states could not restrict taxpayer funding of abortions based on ERA provisions in state constitutions.
“The pro-abortion lobby ... will use the ERA as their ticket to abortion at any time, for any reason, and fully funded by taxpayers,” Del. Scott Garrett, R-Lynchburg, said Monday.
A resolution for Virginia to ratify the amendment passed the Senate 26-14 on a bipartisan vote, but died 4-2 in a House subcommittee controlled by Republicans.
Democrats hope to bring ERA ratification to a floor vote in the full House before the General Assembly’s scheduled adjournment Saturday.
Kati Hornung of the group VAratifyERA issued this statement:
“The system was designed by men, for men, and they seem intent on scaring women from political speech. In this situation we see a man exerting authority, who had no basis for that authority because Ms. Sutherland was not doing anything illegal.
“Further, the judge overstepped the boundaries of reasonableness, perhaps to make an example of Ms. Sutherland. This is part of the reason why we need the ERA, because the system is so male centric and they don’t know what to do with women who challenge their authority by using their First Amendment protected rights.
“We hear Ms. Sutherland is in good spirits and talking with women in the jail about the Equal Rights Amendment. She now has a very good attorney and we hope she will be out shortly. Women will not be silenced.”
Said White, the activist who mimicked the state seal with Sutherland on Monday:
“The real crime here is the obstruction of democracy by not allowing the Equal Rights Amendment to come to the floor for a vote.”