NSC-131 members say they can't find a NH defense lawyer for pending civil rights case
Members of NSC-131, a white supremacist group active in New England, said in court Wednesday they’re struggling to find a New Hampshire lawyer willing to defend them against charges they violated the state’s Civil Rights Act.
“In light of the fact that this is a controversial issue, in light of the fact that no member of the New Hampshire Bar is willing to step up and be local counsel, I am effectively being denied local counsel,” Leo Cullinan, one of the defendants in the case, told Judge David Ruoff during a preliminary hearing Wednesday in Rockingham Superior Court.
New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella announced a civil petition against NSC-131 and two of its members, Cullinan and Christopher Hood, in January. The defendants are accused of trespassing onto a bridge in Portsmouth last summer, and fastening a banner that read “Keep New England White.”
The case — believed to be the first of its kind in New Hampshire — comes as the state is seeing an uptick in reported hate crimes and bias incidents, including a string of vandalism in Portsmouth last week that is still under investigation. If convicted, NSC-131 and other defendants could face fines of up to $5,000.
Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, Hood submitted a motion to dismiss the case, arguing the group’s actions are protected under the First Amendment.
“So called ‘hate speech’ or speech that disparages other groups or individuals — and the defendants do not by any means concede that their communication conveys such a message — has been held by the Supreme Court to still fall within the category of protected speech,” Hood wrote in a court filing.
The state has argued the act of hanging the banner on the bridge constituted a trespass and was motivated by racial animus, making it a violation of the civil rights statute.
“The fencing on an overpass, although public property, is not a public forum and is subject to restrictions regarding when, where, and what may be placed upon it or displayed from it,” state prosecutors wrote in another court filing.
Both Hood and Cullinan have asked Ruoff, the judge overseeing the case, to allow out-of-state attorneys to represent them against the New Hampshire Attorney General’s allegations.
Williams Gens, a Massachusetts attorney, has stepped forward to represent Hood, but Ruoff previously denied that request, citing New Hampshire Supreme Court administrative rules.
Wednesday’s hearing lasted about 30 minutes, with Ruoff saying he’d take the matter about out-of-state counsel under advisement. Ten members of NSC-131 were present in the courtroom, seated in the first two rows wearing matching khaki pants and black shirts, a typical uniform for the group.
Speaking to media after Wednesday’s hearing, Gens said the case puts more than the defendants’ First Amendment rights on the line.
“This case right now is crossing over from a free speech case into a due process case because these guys can’t get counsel,” he said.
While defendants in criminal cases have access to public defenders if they can’t afford their own attorney, defendants in civil matters don’t have the same option.
Also at Wednesday’s hearing, Hood and Cullinan requested a trial by jury, which the judge said he would rule on at a later hearing.
Assistant Attorney General Sean Locke, who leads the New Hampshire Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Unit, asked the judge to schedule a one-day trial within 60 to 90 days. The defendants asked to delay a trial until the fall.
Afterwards, Locke told reporters the case is being handled in the same manner as any other alleged violation of state law.
“This is conduct that isn’t going to be accepted or tolerated in the state of New Hampshire,” he said.