Jury finds Ardmore mask protestor not guilty

Robby Short
The Daily Ardmoreite
Attorney Jason May and defendant Leslie Fleming wait for their trial to begin Thursday.

A jury on Thursday found Ardmore resident Leslie Fleming not guilty of charges stemming from a November protest against a planned vote by Ardmore city commissioners to institute a city-wide mask mandate.

Fleming was initially arrested for possession of stolen code enforcement signs, a charge that was later reduced to one count of malicious injury to city property.

It took the jury less than 20 minutes to return the not guilty verdict to a courtroom largely devoid of masks.The defendant was one of only a few in attendance wearing a mask.

The prosecution, led by Assistant District Attorney Jessica Underwood, made the case that Fleming had unlawfully obtained the code enforcement signs from a city vehicle. City Development Director Jessica Scott was called in as a witness, detailing social media posts where the defendant openly boasted about taking the signs — valued at $1.70 to $1.90 each — which she then reported stolen.

Under cross examination, Defense Attorney Jason May inquired as to why other usages of the signs had not been reported to which Scott responded, “No one else has stolen the signs from any vehicle.”

The arresting officer, Cpl. Landon Gary, a detective with the Ardmore Police Department, said that Fleming never admitted to him to stealing the signs, adding that he did say “But I brought them back,” and that some of the signs in his possession had been gifted to him by homeowners.

May pressed Gary on why the arrest was made for the misdemeanor offense in light of the ongoing pandemic, implying that Gary had been questioned by the county jail during the booking process to which Gary responded, “Everything was different during COVID, the only reason I was questioned was because of COVID.”

Fleming took the stand in his own defense, going into great detail to illustrate the various art projects he has completed within the city, claiming that he often used the code enforcement signs while painting fire hydrants throughout the city.

Fleming also claimed to have standing permission from the city to create artworks on city property, permission he claimed was granted by Create Ardmore, a nonprofit organization operating within the city.

Fleming's responses to both the prosecuting and defending attorneys were so extensive, Judge Carson Brooks asked the defendant to limit his responses to only address the questions being asked on several occasions.

Fleming told the jury “I know I talk a lot and I apologize” before explaining that he first began using the code enforcement signs in 2018, claiming that he took the signs — often gifted to him — he viewed as a badge of shame and repurposed them to assist in his efforts in painting fire hydrants.

Later in the trial, Fleming would admit to taking the signs from a city truck — even reading to the jury a social media post where he bragged about “stealing” the signs, claiming it was a joke — while also attesting that he had permission from the city worker to do so.

The prosecutor asked the defendant to explain the acronym ACAC to the jury — the acronym had been used in a social media post by Fleming related to his initial arrest. Flemings first told the jury that he didn’t know the meaning of the acronym, then told them it meant “All cops are cool,” a claim the prosecutor challenged based off of the definition used by Urban Dictionary. The meaning implied by the prosecution was not used in court.

The prosecutor also challenged the defendant's ability to remember some details while not remembering others due to what the defendant claimed was a medical condition.

Throughout the trial, the defense attempted to paint the issue as a fight to protect the First Amendment to which Underwood responded “The reason we are here is unrelated to the freedom of speech. We are here because Mr. Fleming thinks he can do what he wants and get away with it.”

The defense responded that the charges “It’s not about painting the signs, it’s not about what the painting says. His issue was not against the mask but about not having a say in the mandate. It was a protest. Free speech is absolute. It cannot be infringed.”

In closing, May presented a code enforcement sign that he had used to take note during the trial stating that he had not been arrested for it, to which was later established that the sign May had used had not been reported stolen.

“He (Fleming) was taken to jail for defacing a sign worth $1.70 during a pandemic,” May said.

In closing, Underwood asked the jury not to send Fleming back to jail, but to instead send a message.

“He knew he stole those signs, he bragged about it,” Underwood said. “Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. He lied twice while on the stand. ACAC, he knows what that means and even when the judge made him tell you, he lied.”

The jury chose unanimously to acquit. 

"I knew that if it was looked at objectively, I would win because those signs are garbage. I drew on garbage and that's what they arrested me for," Fleming said after being acquitted. "For saying no to city hall. If I had said 'yes masks' they would have put it in books and magazines, saying 'look how good Ardmore is, where the artists paint positive mask messages.'  But because I said no, they put my ass in jail."