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Willmar bias case to move forward

WILLMAR -- Charges against a Willmar man accused of tossing a pig's foot onto a table at the Willmar Farmers Market last summer will go forward. District Court Judge Michael Thompson has denied motions by the defense seeking to dismiss the charge...

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WILLMAR - Charges against a Willmar man accused of tossing a pig's foot onto a table at the Willmar Farmers Market last summer will go forward.

District Court Judge Michael Thompson has denied motions by the defense seeking to dismiss the charges against Joseph Fernkes, 62, of Willmar.

He is charged with gross misdemeanor criminal damage to property with bias, as well as misdemeanor damage to property and misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

In a ruling issued Dec. 12, the judge found that there was probable cause for the charges to be heard by a jury. The memorandum pointed out it would be the jury's responsibility based on the testimony it hears to "determine what occurred, in what fashion, and with what emotions.''

Fernkes and defense attorney John Mack had asked for all of the charges to be dismissed, arguing that the statute used for the damage to property charge alleging bias was unconstitutional and that Fernkes' actions were protected free speech.

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The complaint alleges that Fernkes on Aug. 12 at the Willmar Farmers Market placed a pig's foot on a table where two people of Somali heritage who practice Islam were selling food items.

"(Expletive) you, Mohamed. I don't like you. ... Try and sell this, Mohamed,'' Fernkes is alleged to have said.

Islam considers pork, pork products and anything pig-related to be unclean.

The state alleged that some of the food could no longer be sold, primarily for religious reasons if it had come into contact with pork.

In a memorandum accompanying the ruling, the judge said that if Fernkes acted to reduce the number of people who would purchase a product, it could be considered damage.

The statute involving bias must be narrowly construed to refer to whether or not "fighting words'' were expressed, according to the memorandum. A jury would need to determine based on witness testimony whether the actions and words reached that level.

"For example, if the Defendant's version of placing the pork on the table is true (that it was done respectfully, and without touching anything else), it may be that his act did not reach the fighting words level. If, however, Defendant actually placed the pork on food, coupled with his words spoken in a loud, insulting manner, it might reach the fighting words standard,'' stated the judge in the memorandum.

The case next returns to court for a settlement conference on March 5, and a jury trial is on the calendar for March 8.

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