Court imposes 24-month probation, fines and community service to man accused of defacing ‘I Can’t Breathe’ artwork

Richard Tuttle, accused in the July 14 “I Can’t Breathe” art installation defacement, appeared in Edmonds Municipal Court on Wednesday where attorneys for the defense and prosecution presented a pretrial diversion agreement for the court to consider in lieu of traditional sentencing. Clockwise from upper left, the Hon. Judge Whitney Rivera, defense attorney Patrick Feldman, prosecuting attorney Yelena Stock, and defendant Richard Tuttle.

In a Wednesday morning ruling, newly-installed Edmonds Municipal Court Judge Whitney Rivera agreed to impose the terms of a pretrial diversion agreement negotiated by the prosecution and defense teams in the case of an Edmonds man accused in the July 14 defacement of the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ art installation.

Richard Tuttle, 70, is accused of spraying black paint over the letter “T” in the artwork — located on the Civic Field fence across from the Edmonds Police Station — . changing the “I Can’t Breathe” message to “I Can Breathe.” The defacement was observed by witnesses, and the artwork was restored by community members a few hours later.

Under the third-degree malicious mischief charge, if found guilty Tuttle could have faced a maximum penalty of 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Tuttle’s attorney Patrick Feldman stressed to the court that his client regrets his actions. While Tuttle’s intent was not to “demean, but rather to express an opinion,” Feldman said, Tuttle now understands that expressing one’s opinion means the ability to make and carry your own sign, but does not include “touching other people’s stuff” — and his actions in this case crossed that line.

Under the terms of the agreement, Tuttle’s case will be continued for 24 months, during which time he will remain on probation, complete anger management classes within the next 60 days, and perform 16 hours of community service. In addition, he must pay $150 in probation monitoring costs, and $38.52 in restitution to artist Christable Jamison, who created the work. During the probationary period, he may have no new criminal law violations, and must keep the court clerk and probation officials apprised of his current address.

The agreement also requires Tuttle to waive his constitutional rights to a jury trial and to call witnesses.

The “I Can’t Breathe” art installation.

Jamison, a recent Edmonds-Woodway High School graduate, installed the artwork through the Edmonds Art Commission’s temporary “On the Fence” program. Jamison, who is Black, said she was inspired by the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.

The crime drew significant public attention, with some calling for hate crime charges to be filed. The malicious mischief charge against Tuttle was filed by City of Edmonds Prosecuting Attorney James Zachor after the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office declined to file criminal hate crime charges in the case, stating there wasn’t enough evidence. To obtain a conviction in a hate crime, the prosecutor must prove that a suspect caused physical damage to a victim or a victim’s property, acted maliciously, and committed the act based on the suspect’s perception of the victim’s race, color or ancestry. After studying the case, the county prosecutor determined that there was insufficient evidence that Tuttle knew anything about the artist’s race.

While expressing “reservations” about the terms of agreement, Rivera recognized that it was the result of concerted hard work and negotiations between both legal teams, and that in light of this she was moved to approve it.

Rivera took pains to explicitly inform Tuttle that should he violate any of these terms, the agreement would be immediately revoked, and the court would render a judgment based on its review of the incident report. Should this review determine that there is sufficient evidence to find Tuttle guilty, the court could “sentence you all the way up to the maximum penalty,” Rivera said.

— By Larry Vogel

  1. I stopped 5 kids of color from spray painting and postering the Rusty Pelican at 1am following BLM protest here in town. They called me racist, I told them my family was black, they said I had a sexual fetish, threaten me with weapons. I tried everything from humor to reason to deescelate them (it was mostly females and teens so protecting myself was not an option). I walked home and debated calling the police. I ultimately decided not to because I am white.

    Ultimately, we should have a zero tolerance for defacing the property of others.

  2. Matt,

    Agree completely. If it ain’t yours, and it ain’t in need of your help, just leave it alone. I am happy that the prosecutor and the defendant came to an agreement. The Prosecutor, after investigation, determined that this was not a hate crime (not my words), but an expression of an opinion that defaced the property of others.

    I think it speaks to some generational misunderstandings that need to be addressed in an open and honest way. Much of what I see about both sides (and I am guilty as well) is misinterpretation of an act or a voice versus real meaningful differences in beliefs. (It is pretty easy to see the groups that are on both the extremes of the spectrum).

    For me, this is a good learning lesson for all residents – some will say it was not enough, others will say it is too much, but the Prosecutor has that job to interpret the law and get the conviction. Both sides of political speech do things that are wrong – and I suspect the penalties, in our area, are commensurate.

    Again, misunderstanding is cleared up through dialogue and dollars, not through two rows of people yelling and accusing.

    Finally, to you point – don’t touch other people’s stuff.

  3. Every single person, and I don’t care what color you are, has a responsibility to yourself and your community! Every time you don’t meet that responsibility you probably intensify negative thoughts toward you or to whatever cultural group or political party you belong to

    A group of people protesting the treatment of people of color can be informational, but when you break into stores, steal. and do not behave responsibly you are confirming negative opinions.

    A group of people protesting and following a leader who is harmful to our country you are also confirming negative thoughts.

    My own experience tells me that many times my own negative thoughts are hard to give up and it is not to your advantage to intensify them.

  4. I believe we all have a responsibility to communicate respectfully.
    Also, I believe we should not deface other’s property.
    The City also has a responsibility. The placement of the “I Can’t Breath” sign across from the Police Department was not a good decision. The sign was extremely provocative. Did anyone consider the impact that sign would have on those that support our Police Department, or the law enforcement officers that work in that office? At the time, police departments across the US were being attacked, and the placement of this sign only inflamed this issue.
    I agree this was not a hate crime, but instead a difference of opinion.
    The gentlemen who defaced the sign will remember this lesson.
    Will the City also learn a lesson re the location of this sign?

  5. Well said, Helen! I’m sure, cops coming to work, didn’t feel community support, when they saw that sign.

  6. I stated essentially the same thing earlier, but I will state it again here. The City converted the fence space across from the police station into a political forum. That installation was every bit as political as it was “artistic.”. As such the installation invited commentary in the form that it took. The entire prosecution was stupid and a waste of money and effort. While ill-advised, the actions taken were not a “hate crime” any more than the installation itself was a “hate crime.” The entire event was a virtue signaling demonstration by the oxygen thief of a Mayor and the city council. There was a solid freedom of speech defense that was not tendered as far as I know. Too bad for all involved.

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