PITTSFIELD — Lonnie Durfee appeared poised Wednesday to plead guilty to burning a hulking Biden-Harris hay bale display in what a judge concluded was an act of political intimidation.
But, after learning that the judge would sentence him to a year in jail, he withdrew his plea.
Durfee, 50, was arrested in October, shortly after he admitted to police that he set the blaze on the property of Holiday Brook Farm. He spent about 54 days cumulatively in pretrial lockup, and had requested he be sentenced to time served.
But, during a hearing Wednesday in Central Berkshire District Court, Judge Paul Smyth adopted the prosecution’s recommendation of a year in the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction, the maximum sentence for his charge of felony burning personal property.
Smyth highlighted the political context of the arson fire in the weeks leading up to a presidential election of “unmatched” vitriol and the threat to public safety that it posed. And he inferred Durfee set the “inferno … to intimidate citizens from exercising their right to vote.”
He also weighed Durfee’s criminal history.
The judge focused a societal lens on the “hotly contested” case, and suggested that police had gone easy on Durfee after he confessed to using motor oil and gasoline as accelerants to ignite the pro-Democratic display along the “well-traveled” Route 9.
Dalton Police officers interviewed Durfee, a white Donald Trump supporter, at his parents’ home the evening of the fire Oct. 9, when he confessed and showed them photographs of the blaze and other pictures of him burning campaign signs, according to a police report. He then “agreed to go inside” and go to bed, and then report to the station the next day.
“I think the next time a Black man admits to a felony and is told to go home and get a good night’s sleep and come back the next day might be the first time,” Smyth said.
“And if Mr. Durfee expected such treatment in the courts,” he continued, “that won’t be the case. There’s no preferential treatment.”
Smyth also noted that Durfee’s behavior had been escalating, citing evidence presented by prosecutors, including additional photos of Durfee throwing up a middle finger while standing next to a Black Lives Matter sign and of other burning Joe Biden-Kamala Harris campaign signs.
“The fact that this is not an isolated incident goes directly to the commonwealth’s request” for a one-year sentence, said Deputy District Attorney Richard Dohoney.
Durfee told police that Biden and Harris, now the president and vice president, respectively, were “evil people,” according to Dohoney, and said there’s “No way Black people are being treated badly; they have more f---ing rights than us.”
The prosecutor described the environment at the time, both locally and nationally, as “heated.”
Prompted by Smyth, he described the weekly protests that had been occurring in the city’s Coltsvile neighborhood after the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis Police custody, at which there were at least two documented fights between pro-Trump demonstrators and Black Lives Matter activists. Dohoney said at least three arrests were made at the protests.
“With all that’s going on in the country,” Dohoney said Durfee told investigators, “I saw that [hay bale display] and it brought anger out and I had to burn it.”
Smyth dismissed the defense’s request not to consider the past sign-burning incidents — they were acts that defense lawyer Robert Sullivan said were constitutionally protected political speech — in his sentencing decision. Smyth said they offered relevant context.
The judge also determined that neither the grief Durfee felt over the death of his son in a motorcycle crash months earlier, nor his alcohol use, lessened the severity of his crime.
Durfee shook his head at several points during the hearing, such as when Dohoney brought up his criminal record that he said included “terrible violent acts” dating to 2016. The judge said Durfee was incarcerated in 2017 on a strangulation case.
Defending himself, Durfee said he had been stabbed by his wife three times, among other assaults, and indicated he had been a victim of domestic violence. In setting the fire, Durfee said, he never meant to hurt anyone.
“I’m not a bad guy like it’s being portrayed,” he said. “I did my time; I did two years.”
After Smyth issued the sentence, Durfee, who appeared via Zoom, said he would be open to serving nine months instead, so he could be out in time to “do something for my son’s funeral.”
But, Sullivan, who appeared in the courthouse along with Dohoney and the judge, swiftly told Durfee there could be no bargaining over the sentence.
“This is not a negotiation,” he told his client.
Smyth told Durfee he could choose to withdraw his plea, which he chose to do, putting the case back on the road to a trial. He is due back in court April 6 for a status hearing.