Victim of hate 

Could Josh Noblitt's attack mend the rift between the APD and the LGBT community?

Protestors rallied outside City Hall in 2009 following the APD's controversial raid on local gay bar the Atlanta Eagle.

Joeff Davis

Protestors rallied outside City Hall in 2009 following the APD's controversial raid on local gay bar the Atlanta Eagle.

It's about four-and-a-half hours into the day's proceedings in Fulton County's courtroom 5D, and a visibly anxious Josh Noblitt squirms in his seat. The wooden benches that form neat rows aren't the most forgiving resting place, especially when forced to spend several hours sitting on one, but substandard seating isn't the source of Noblitt's discomfort. An investigator and mitigation specialist with the Federal Public Defender's Office, Noblitt is used to sitting on the other side of the bar. He's used to advocating on behalf of defendants. And he's used to knowing what the hell's going on.

Being the victim of a violent crime has been frustrating at best for Noblitt. This particular day — a Thursday in mid-August — is the court's third attempt at holding a bond hearing for his alleged perpetrators. Each time, Noblitt has taken the day off of work to be present in the courtroom, and each time, one administrative issue or another has prevented the hearing from taking place. So far, today hasn't been much better. Even though the hearing was scheduled for 9:30 a.m., only one of the six defendants was on the bus that transports the first batch of inmates from the Fulton County Jail (a fire marshal regulation says that no more than 125 inmates can be inside the courthouse at any one time), so they've had to wait to proceed until the second bus arrived at around 1:30. A prosecutor in the case was kind enough to make his way into the gallery to explain this to Noblitt.

When the bailiffs finally prepare to bring the defendants into the courtroom, it's past 2 p.m. "Here we go," Noblitt whispers as his alleged attackers — ages 13 though 19 — are escorted in through a side door and arranged around the suddenly too-small defense table beside their respective attorneys. The oldest of the six, Jarvis Johnson, looks sufficiently aloof as he swaggers into the courtroom, sucking his bottom lip. The youngest, Jamal Bryant (who's being tried as an adult), looks like a baby, blank-faced and dazed. If Noblitt remembers correctly, Bryant was the one who wielded the stick the night he was attacked.

It was 9:45 p.m. on July 2 when Noblitt and his friend Trent Williams, enjoying the waning summer daylight and playing a game of Spades in Piedmont Park, were approached by three teenage boys. "Y'all gay?" Noblitt says the boys asked. "Two men laying on a blanket, we should beat you up for that."

Initially, the boys went away, but 15 minutes later they were back. This time, one of them had a stick and they were ready to fight. The five of them had it out. Williams had taken karate as a kid and was able to fend them off for the most part. Noblitt was punched in the head and kicked in the ribs, but eventually maneuvered the stick away from one of his attackers, grabbed his phone and called 911. While Noblitt was making his call, one the attackers made a call of his own, and just minutes later, more teenagers stormed the park toward them. One of the latecomers, an older kid in a black tank top, put a gun to Noblitt's head, and demanded his wallet and phone. In that moment, an insipid act of ignorance became a potentially deadly armed robbery.

With the court's permission, a cameraman from a local news station is set up by the chamber doors, but the hearing — still barely in progress after the several-hour delay — is brought to a hasty end when members of the defense counsel object to their clients being filmed, arguing it might compromise their constitutional right to a fair trial. But as Judge Alford J. Dempsey points out, the media's presence in the courtroom shouldn't have come as a surprise. The July 2 attack made headlines almost immediately, in part because of Noblitt's standing in the community — besides his work at the Federal Defender's Office, Noblitt is ordained and serves as Minister of Social Justice at Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Midtown — but also because of the nature of the crime: Noblitt and Williams, smack in the middle of Midtown, were attacked for being gay.

According to records provided by the Atlanta Police Department, the attack in Piedmont Park is one of 17 incidents to have taken place so far this year that's been categorized as bias-related specifically against members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered, or LGBT, community. Because Georgia has the dubious distinction of being one of just five states without hate crime legislation on the books, when a victim of crime is targeted based on their race, color, creed, or sexual orientation or identification, the Atlanta Police Department can classify the act only as a "bias crime." The phrase doesn't carry quite the same gravitas as "hate crime," nor is it accompanied by the same threat of additional penalty in the state's court system. Classifying crimes as bias-related basically allows the APD to keep stats on the phenomenon and gives police the option of forwarding the case to the Justice Department for prosecution under federal hate crimes legislation, should it meet certain requirements.

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