Judge nixes criminal charge for alleged racist phone call

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George addresses the media. She called the dismissal a learning experience.

BURLINGTON — A former University of Vermont student won't face charges for overheard remarks that a bystander described as racist and threatening.

A judge said Tuesday the state didn't have grounds to charge Wesley Richter with disorderly conduct.

Richter was overheard in a phone call with his mother. A UVM community member reported the call Oct. 1, according to authorities.

Richter's lawyer, Ben Luna, argued prosecutors didn't have probable cause to bring the misdemeanor charge, and Superior Court Judge David Fenster agreed. Richter, through his lawyer, denied saying anything racist.

In a statement, Luna called Tuesday's dismissal a victory for free speech and the First Amendment.

"From the very beginning, we maintained the University of Vermont, the University of Vermont Police Department and the Chittenden (County) state's attorney's office overextended their constitutional power in this case. The court's ruling reinforces my opinion that this matter should never have been brought," Luna said.

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George said she thought the case was strong, but that it's also a learning experience.

"It's disappointing, but it's also good for us to know. It's a really great decision for us in terms of case law and reasoning, so we know now what this court expects of us," George said.

It's possible the state may try to bring charges again, but only if more evidence comes to light, which is unlikely this long after the incident, George said.

Court records in the case remain under seal. Documents are made public only after probable cause is found to support an allegation.

UVM officials heard of the dismissal only through news outlets and have not seen the ruling, according to university spokesperson Enrique Corredera. Richter was a continuing education student at the time but is no longer enrolled, Corredera said.

"The university has attempted without success to obtain official and detailed information regarding the court's basis for this dismissal," according to Corredera. He did not immediately return a phone message asking if UVM had been able to see the documents.

George said UVM and the public likely will never see the court documents.

"They don't have any greater right to it than you do," George said.

The case roiled the campus last fall. After university officials learned of Richter's alleged comments in early October, they sent a universitywide message alerting the campus.

In the message, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Annie Stevens described "racist and threatening language" that was directed toward "African Americans and general diversity initiatives at UVM."

"Such detestable remarks and threats directed to any group or individual are antithetical to our values and commitment to work toward racial equality and greater inclusion," Stevens wrote.

The incident came during a time of racially charged events on campus. Weeks before Richter's alleged remarks, the student newspaper reported that a UVM student had stolen a Black Lives Matter flag from a prominent campus flagpole.

Hundreds of students then marched on UVM's Waterman Building, which houses the main administrative offices, demanding reforms. University officials released a detailed response to student concerns shortly after the march.