Eight jurors decamped to a back room in Seattle’s federal courthouse this afternoon to decide whether 72-year-old William Wingate’s civil rights were violated by former Seattle police officer Cynthia Whitlatch.
Whitlatch arrested Wingate on July 9, 2014 for allegedly swinging a golf club at her and for “obstruction.” He spent the night in jail, but was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing and given an apology by the department. Wingate, a military veteran and former bus driver with a spotless criminal record, is seeking at least $750,000 in damages.
In closing arguments today, Wingate’s attorney, Vonda Sargent, repeatedly cited text messages sent by Whitlatch as a evidence of “deeply seated racial bias.” The messages were uncovered in the discovery phase of the trial and then introduced as evidence in an earlier part of the proceedings.
"Don’t let this go unpunished and unanswered," Sargent, who is black, said. "We’re not going to wait until we have a body in the street. We’re going to stop it here and now... it’s 2016."
In the text message records that were introduced into evidence, the identities of those texting with Whitlatch are redacted. The exchanges took place in January 2015, shortly after The Stranger broke the story of Wingate’s arrest.
“I say you did it because he’s black… He was being a total ahole,” said one correspondent.
Whitlatch responded, “Yeah… that’s pretty much what landed him in jail…”
Sargent told jurors the texts amount to admission of bias.
In another exchange, the unidentified correspondent said, “Got the news. Complete bull shit.”
Whitlatch wrote back: “Facebook rant against black racism and arresting a man who swings a golf club at you is apparently going to get me lynched.”
The correspondent talked about an e-mail sent out by police chief Kathleen O’Toole—presumably the message to employees in which O'Toole announced Whitlatch was being investigated—and remarked, “I subjected myself to the misery of reading the Stranger. This would be a nonissue in a normal community.”
In another message, Whitlatch wrote, “If I thought I was going to lose my job I think I would be totally fucked up in my head but there’s no way I’m gonna lose my job. The worst still [sic] do if they do anything is give me a bunch of days off and who cares I don’t want to go to work anyway right now.”
She is appealing her firing. An administrative hearing has been rescheduled for January 10-13, 2017.
As the trial concluded today, William Wingate wore a grey suit and sat facing the judge with hearing aids, listening intently.
Whitlatch, in a turtleneck shirt with earrings, clasped her hands and stared at Sargent, at times shaking her head or dabbing her eyes with a tissue.
Robert Christie, the lead attorney for Whitlatch, told jurors the text messages were sarcastic and called Sargent’s claims “absurd.”
“This case boils down to a misunderstanding and a miscommunication,” Christie said. “It had nothing to do with race. She was doing her job.”
“We should not punish anyone for speaking out,” Christie argued, referring to Whitlatch’s Facebook posts, which were also cited by Wingate's legal team as evidence of bias. “Everyone, even people who are not African-American, should be able to vocalize a concern right or wrong, without being treated or labeled as a racist.”
Christie continued: “Cynthia Whitlatch is more than what she said in a Facebook post or two sarcastic text exchanges or comments that she made."
Federal judge Richard Jones excused the jurors early today so they could beat traffic related to the Seahawks game. The jurors—four women, four men, mostly white, and none black—resume deliberations tomorrow at 9 a.m.