In Civil Rights Case, Judge Finds Dylan Ponce Responsible For African Meeting House Hate Crime
Jason Graziadei and David Creed •
A Nantucket Superior Court judge on Monday entered a decision against island resident Dylan Ponce in the civil rights lawsuit stemming from the African Meeting House hate crime in 2018.
Judge Mark Gildea ruled that Ponce was responsible for the racist graffiti discovered on the historic building four years ago, and that he violated the civil rights of the two plaintiffs in the case - Nantucket residents Jim Barros and Rose Marie Samuels. Gildea issued a permanent injunction against Ponce that orders him to stay away from the African Meeting House, have no contact with Barros or Samuels and stay at least 25 yards away from them in public, as well as requiring that Ponce not violate their civil rights in the future.
According to Gildea’s decision, the “undisputed facts” of the civil case show that “Mr. Ponce spray-painted the phrase “N****r Leave!” in large black letters on the doors of the African Meeting House on Nantucket. The next day (March 11 or 12), Mr. Ponce told his employer, Jeffrey Sayle, what he had done.”
Read the judge's decision by clicking here
Based on the court record and the “reasonable inferences to be drawn” from it, Ponce violated the civil rights of Barros and Samuels by painting the racist graffiti on the historic meeting house, which the judge described as “the most important African American structure on Nantucket.” Gildea called the racial epithet “plainly intimidating” and stated that it contained an implicit threat.
“We are very pleased with the Superior Court’s decision,” said attorney John Hitt, who represented Barros and Samuels, in a prepared statement sent to the Current. “Ponce’s racist actions have no place in a civilized society. Mr. Barros and Ms. Samuels have taken an important stand against Ponce’s racist acts. After being threatened, intimidated, and coerced at the March 11, 2020 Select Board Meeting by town officials for speaking out about the hate crime and the ineffective response of law enforcement and town officials, Mr. Barros and Ms. Samuels took matters into their own hands and sought the protection of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act. Today, a measure of justice has been achieved.”
A separate civil case brought by Barros and Samuels against town leaders related to their conduct at the Select Board meeting referenced by Hitt remains pending in Nantucket Superior Court.
The decision in the civil case against Ponce comes after a grand jury declined to issue an indictment of him in 2021. Ponce has not been charged criminally by the Cape and Islands District Attorney’s office.
Gildea’s decision relied on the testimony of Sayle, Ponce’s former boss, who submitted to a deposition in the civil case last year.
“The particular racist phrase used by Mr. Ponce implied that something bad might happen if one were not to comply with Mr. Ponce’s command to ‘leave’,” Gildea wrote. “Painting that phrase on that building was intended by Mr. Ponce to make Blacks on Nantucket fearful or apprehensive of injury or harm if they stayed.”
In the civil rights lawsuit, Barros and Samuels asserted that they felt threatened and intimidated by the racist act, and no longer felt safe on Nantucket, particularly at night.
Unlike Sayle, Ponce declined to testify in the previous court proceedings, and reached by phone on Monday, his attorney Jim Merberg declined to comment about the judge's decision. During his own deposition last year, Ponce repeatedly asserted his fifth amendment rights when he was asked a variety of questions including whether he was the individual behind the hate crime and/or whether he knew who was behind it. Ponce and Merberg offered no opposition to the motion for summary judgement in the case.
According to the Massachusetts Guide of Evidence (MGE), Article III, Section 301, in civil cases if the individual being alleged of a crime fails to come forward and rebut the allegations, “the fact at issue is to be taken by the fact finder as established.”
The MGE further states that it is “the long-standing rule in Massachusetts that an adverse inference may be drawn against a party who invokes a testimonial privilege in a civil case.”