Trial begins for man accused of racially motivated hate crime
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 »
Just before two white men began allegedly beating a black man on a Hooksett road last summer, witnesses nearby heard what they described in court yesterday as shocking racial slurs being flung from a car toward a man on a moped.
“I just kept on hearing over and over the word ‘n-----’ applied. ‘You want some of this n-----,’ and ‘I’m going to get you n-----.’ ” Dwayne Dee, a Manchester man who witnessed the incident on Route 3, said yesterday in Merrimack County Superior Court.
Two witnesses testified to seeing 21-year-old Donald Freese of Concord, who is on trial this week, get out of a car in front of the Hooksett Market Basket and, with another man, approach 23-year-old Alhaji Kargbo. The two men began punching Kargbo, the witnesses said, ultimately pulling him off his vehicle and continuing to strike him on the ground. As the fight escalated, Freese brandished a knife and attempted to slash Kargbo, all while the men shouted the epithet at him, Dee testified.
Prosecutors believe the July 31 crime was rooted in racism, and they’ve charged Freese and the other alleged assailant, 21-year-old Joshua Peno of Nottingham, with a racially motivated hate crime. It’s the first time the Merrimack County Attorney’s office has prosecuted such a case.
To be successful, Assistant County Attorney Wayne Coull must show the men assaulted Kargbo because of his race. If a jury agrees, Freese and Peno will face harsher sentences.
Freese’s lawyer, though, argued yesterday that the witnesses saw only the end of a confrontation that had started a mile and a half before the Market Basket. The attorney, Ted Barnes, said Kargbo “took offense” when someone in Freese’s car allegedly yelled the charged word at him, prompting Kargbo to chase the vehicle down the road and stop at a red light looking for a fight.
And he implied that the person who first said “n-----” – a word that made the witnesses clearly uncomfortable as they were forced to use it again and again yesterday – might have not meant offense by it.
“You know that there are circumstances where somebody can call somebody a n----- and they don’t mean it, correct?” Barnes asked.
Kargbo said he didn’t.
“Okay, you don’t know about that. Okay, fair enough,” Barnes said, not elaborating on what he meant.
Kargbo, who is originally from Sierra Leone and moved to the United States in 2004, testified yesterday that he did not know Freese, Peno or the two other people in their car when the incident occurred about 3:30 p.m. July 31. Kargbo, who lives in Manchester, said he had just come from the mechanic when he saw someone lean out of a vehicle and use the racial slur.
Barnes asked if Kargbo, who was on a moped, had proceeded to follow the car down the road, and Kargbo said he had, adding that he wanted to know why they had called him that name.
“What had I done to them to say that to me?” Kargbo said.
“So were you pretty calm about it or were you a little upset?” Barnes asked.
Kargbo said he was upset but denied Barnes’s assessment that he was extremely aggravated when he confronted the men at the red light.
“I said, ‘What did you say to me?’ ” Kargbo said. “And he said, ‘I said f------ n-----. What you going to do about it?’ ”
“Did you go there to fight them?” Barnes asked.
Kargbo said he hadn’t.
“What did you think you were going to do with a car full of people?” the lawyer asked. “And you went to confront them, right?”
Kargbo said it didn’t matter how many people were in the car. “I still have the right to confront them about what they said to me,” he said.
Throughout questioning, Kargbo said he hadn’t intended to start a fight, and he denied, when Barnes specifically asked, that he had kicked the men’s vehicle and punched one of them through the car window.
Dee also testified yesterday that Freese and Peno had been the aggressors, saying he saw the men get out of the car and approach the moped in his rearview mirror. Peno started pulling Kargbo off the moped while Freese continued punching him, he said.
Dee said he got out of his vehicle and tried to diffuse the situation by loudly taking down the vehicle’s license plate number, writing down descriptions of the people involved and saying that the police were on their way.
He testified that after several minutes of fighting, the men did separate, Kargbo to get his moped out of the roadway and Peno and Freese to try to push their car, which the police say had run out of gas, up the ramp into the Market Basket parking lot. But then the situation escalated again, Dee testified, saying that Peno threw another punch and Freese pulled a knife out of the car.
“I saw him pull it out and I went, ‘A knife! A knife!’ And he just went right at (Kargbo), right at the face and throat area,” Dee said.
He testified that Kargbo only avoided serious injury because he took a step back at just the right time.
Dee said the men continued to fight, and the situation calmed when Kargbo hit Freese with a particularly strong punch.
Barnes, though, asked why Kargbo hadn’t walked away before the second fight. Dee testified that Kargbo had walked alongside him from the roadway into the Market Basket driveway, near where Freese’s car had stalled, not to confront the men but because he felt safe near Dee, who was taking notes to give to the police.
“But he’s lessening the personal space between him and them. . . . You don’t think someone might have felt threatened by that under the circumstances?” Barnes asked.
Dee said he couldn’t speculate on that.
Freese was arrested about an hour after the incident, according to Coull, who said Freese had walked south on Route 3 before fleeing into a wooded area where he was later found by the police. Peno and a 15-year-old boy who was in the car but the police said did not take part were found by a Market Basket employee. Peno’s girlfriend Nicolette Nicolaides, who was also in the car, was arrested at the scene, according to the police.
Kargbo suffered serious injuries in the incident, according to the prosecutor. He said that when Kargbo was struggling with Freese and Peno his moped fell on top of him. The muffler burned his leg, Kargbo testified, saying that he also suffered injuries to his neck, where the men were hitting him, and his sides, where they were kicking him.
Freese has been charged with Class B felonies of criminal threatening and second-degree assault as well as a Class A misdemeanor of simple assault. The trial will resume today at 9 a.m. when the prosecution is expected to call several more witnesses. Barnes declined to say if Freese would take the stand or if he planned to call any witnesses.
Peno is scheduled for a trial in March.