Jury yet to reach verdict for Mitchell man who refused to wear mask at school board meeting
Another argument Reed Bender's attorney made centered around video footage and photos of the meeting that showed other attendees not wearing masks in accordance to the school’s policy, questioning why they weren’t approached in the same manner as Bender was.
A jury has yet to reach a verdict for a Mitchell man who was charged with obstructing a law officer roughly a year ago after refusing to wear a mask during a Mitchell Board of Education meeting.
Reed Bender, 39, awaits a decision for an incident that broke out between him and Mitchell police on Sept. 14, 2020, after refusing to comply with the school district’s COVID-19 mask policy. After a judge denied his request to have the case dismissed in August, the case -- which garnered national attention from videos of the incident that circulated across the internet -- went to a jury trial that began Monday.
Bender’s attorney, R. Shawn Tornow, is arguing police officers removed Bender without lawful authority because he said the school's mask mandate wasn't a policy that gave authorities legal grounds to do so. Tornow pointed to Bender's "peaceful" demeanor at the time officers arrived at the school board meeting to counter the claim that police officers had to "preserve the peace" in accordance to state law like the prosecutors alleged.
“Based on the testimonies we heard today, no reasonable jury can come to the conclusion that he was being disagreeable, and that there was somehow color of lawful authority for the officers to forcefully remove him,” Tornow said during Tuesday’s hearing. “They had no right to use force in removing him, and he had to defend himself.”
Tornow requested a judgement of acquittal, but Judge Donna Bucher denied the motion on Tuesday at the Davison County Courthouse, leaving the verdict into the jury’s hands.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Mitchell Superintendent Joe Graves testified that he consulted with the school district’s attorney on the basis of whether he had the authority to request officers remove Bender from the meeting for not complying with the mask mandate, which he said the attorney informed him that it did have the force of the law.
Mitchell police did not arrest Bender the night he was removed from the meeting, and he was not charged for refusing to wear a mask but for "using or threatening to use violence, force or physical interference or obstacle, intentionally obstruct, impair or hinder the enforcement of the criminal laws or the preservation of the peace by law enforcement officers," according to court documents.
While Graves called the Mitchell Police Division to have Bender removed after his offers to provide him with a mask were refused, he told the officers the school is "not interested in pressing charges.” However, State’s Attorney Jim Miskimins pursued the obstruction of a law officer charge shortly after the incident, which led to the trial.
Graves provided details leading up to his decision to call local authorities and request Bender be removed for refusing to comply with the mask policy.
“I did offer (Bender) a mask, and when he declined I informed him he would have to leave. One officer offered a mask and told him if he did not wear a mask he would have to leave. When he refused, they then began to take him by the arms and remove him,” Graves said. “There was a scuffle, and during that scuffle one officer had his taser knocked down and the other officer had his handcuffs knocked down. I then returned those items to the officers.”
Later on during Tuesday’s proceedings, both Mitchell Police officers who removed Bender from the school board meeting testified. When Mitchell Police Officers Niko Arnold and Tyler Urban approached Bender in the library where the meeting was being held, they both agreed that Bender did not appear to be “disorderly.”
However, after Bender did not comply with the officers’ request to leave the property, Arnold said Bender began to “raise his voice” and become agitated.
Moments later, bodycam video footage showed Bender saying “You’re going to have to drag me out” in response to the officers’ request asking him to leave the school, which is when Arnold said Bender “forcefully pulled” him and later “hit his groin.”
“I removed my Taser and pointed it at him, and he then told me to tase him,” Arnold said. “I tried to place him in handcuffs, but he refused to cooperate.”
According to Graves, Bender knocked a stun gun away from one of the officers, but both officers gave conflicting answers, saying that didn’t happen. However, officer Urban’s bodycam was one item that he said was knocked away from him while trying to remove Bender.
Arnold said it appeared that Bender was trying to make a scene and get others in the crowd involved.
“He began to ignore me and get others involved. It was getting out of control,” Arnold said.
As the incident moved outside of the MHS building, Urban said Bender called Graves a derogatory name and appeared to be moving toward him. While outside, Tornow said the officers never offered Bender with the option to go back into the meeting with a mask, which claimed was evidence that Bender was being violated of his right to peacefully attend a school board meeting.
Another argument Tornow made centered around video footage and photos of the meeting that showed other attendees not wearing masks in accordance to the school’s policy, questioning why they weren’t approached in the same manner as Bender was.
Miskimins argued there is clear evidence that shows Bender was resisting officers that warranted the charge brought against him.
Although the jury has yet to deliberate, a decision could be made as early as Wednesday.. The maximum punishment for the Class 1 misdemeanor Bender was charged with is one year in prison and a fine of up to $2,000, if found guilty. The trial will resume Wednesday morning. To follow the developing story, check back with the mitchellrepublic.com.