Jury: Man guilty of first racially-motivated hate crime prosecuted in Merrimack County
Donald Freese faces charges of accomplice to simple assault and criminal threatenting with a knife in aJuly 2012 attack on Route 3A in Hooksett, January 14, 2013. (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
A jury decided yesterday that Donald Freese was fueled by racism when he beat a black man on a Hooksett road last summer, finding him guilty of the first racially-motivated hate crime ever prosecuted in Merrimack County.
Over a two-day trial, witnesses testified that 21-year-old Freese, of Concord, called Alhaji Kargbo a “f------ n-----” repeatedly during the July 31 attack in front of Market Basket on Route 3A. Kargbo, who took the stand on the trial’s first day, testified that the incident actually started about a mile up the road where someone in Freese’s car first yelled the slur.
But he denied that he stopped at the red light in front of the grocery store looking for a fight, saying he only wanted to ask the people in the car why they had called him the name. And he told Freese’s lawyer he didn’t believe the word “n-----” could be used in a non-offensive way, as the attorney suggested it could.
At the red light, Freese and 21-year-old Joshua Peno jumped out of their vehicle, pulled Kargbo off his moped and repeatedly punched and kicked him, according to witnesses who testified the men’s repeated use of the racial slur left them with a lasting impression of shock and sadness. After a short break in the fighting, Freese allegedly brandished a knife and slashed it at Kargbo, who the witnesses said escaped being cut only by dodging the blade.
“The slashing at the gentleman’s face and throat and literally saying, ‘I’m going to kill you n-----’ was enough to make my stomach curl,” said Dwayne Dee, who witnessed the fight.
Freese faces up to 12 years in state prison, which includes 21∕2 to 5 years for being an accomplice to simple assault – the offense to which prosecutors tied the hate crime. Without stipulating racism as a motivator in the attack, Freese would have faced only one year in state prison on that charge.
The jury, after deliberating for about two hours, also found Freese guilty of criminal threatening for slashing the knife at Kargbo.
Freese will likely be sentenced in 45 to 60 days. Peno, the other man charged in the attack, is scheduled for trial in March.
While the county attorney has prosecuted cases involving persecution for sexual orientation as hate crimes, this is the first time the office has noted the victim’s race as a motivating factor, according to County Attorney Scott Murray. Acknowledging that hate crimes are hard to prove, Murray said the witness testimony coupled with the “ferocity” of the assault in this case brought the race element clearly to the forefront.
He said yesterday’s verdict sent an important message at a time when New Hampshire is becoming a more diverse state.
“You’re getting more and more interaction between people of different backgrounds,” he said. “And it’s important to establish that you can’t commit this type of crime against someone because of their background or their race.”
Freese’s lawyer, Ted Barnes, argued that the fight wasn’t about the color of Kargbo’s skin, saying it escalated because of “relentless machismo and a reaction based in testosterone.” In his closing statements, Barnes likened Freese’s use of the word “n-----” to someone trying to insult him by calling him old and fat.
Barnes also attempted to show jurors that Kargbo was the aggressor, saying he chased the car – occupied by Freese, Peno, Peno’s girlfriend and a 15-year-old juvenile – from where the first racial slur was allegedly yelled to the Market Basket. When he stopped at the red light, Kargbo approached the car and threw the first punch, said Barnes.
Freese did not take the stand in his own defense. Barnes appeared ready to call the 15-year-old juvenile and Peno’s girlfriend, Nicolette Nicolaides, to testify Tuesday. But neither showed up at the courthouse.
Murray declined to comment on what kind of sentence his office will seek. After the verdict was read, Barnes requested a Pre-Sentence Investigation, a formal review of Freese’s record by the state Department of Corrections that will include a recommended sentence based on his background and criminal history.
Barnes said Freese has previously been convicted of several misdemeanors and has been successful in the parole process, so he believes the review might be favorable for his client.
Barnes said he is considering appeals in the case, but he declined to elaborate on where he believes mistakes were made in the trial.
Kargbo, who is originally from Sierra Leone and moved to the United States in 2004, was not present as the verdict was read yesterday. He came to the courthouse only to testify, declining an offer to watch the other witnesses speak.
(Tricia L. Nadolny can be reached at 369-3306 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tricia_nadolny.)