Judge OKs use of racist memes as evidence in U.Md. murder, hate trial

Jurors in the first-degree murder and hate crime trial of Sean Urbanski will be able to see and hear racist memes found on his phone minutes after he allegedly stabbed U.S. Army Lt. Richard Collins III in May 2017 on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.

In a motions hearing at Prince George’s County Circuit Court, Urbanski’s attorneys William Brennan and John McKenna argued the “insensitive memes” were unrelated to Collins’ murder.

“General evidence of the defendant’s racial beliefs are not admissible,” McKenna said. “The offensive memes are not connected to the victim.”

The defense said approximately a dozen memes found on Urbanski’s phone were sprinkled among photos of him and his girlfriend on the U.Md. campus, where he was a student.

The racist postings were the focus of three previously filed defense motions, which were argued during Wednesday’s hearing.

The defense wanted Urbanski’s state hate crime charge dropped on First Amendment grounds. As an alternative, the defense wanted two separate trials for the murder charge and the hate crime charge. And the defense had argued jurors should not hear about any of the racist postings because “they would inflame the jury, and were not directly related to the stabbing.”

“These were horribly offensive jokes,” said McKenna. “They were memes, not a manifesto.”

However, prosecutors Jonathan Church and Jason Abbott argued Urbanski stabbed Collins because he was black.

Collins and two friends were standing at a bus stop on May 20, 2017 around 3 a.m., waiting for an Uber at the time of the stabbing.

“He walked past the white guy, he walked past the Asian girl, walked up to the only black guy and stabbed him in the chest,” Church said.

“The murder was the hate crime, and the hate crime was the murder,” Abbott said.

Brennan disputed that Urbanski stabbed Collins because he was the only black person there. He said the white man and Asian woman moved out of Urbanski’s way, without saying a word.

Charging documents said Urbanski said “Step left, if you know what’s best for you,” to each of the three friends at the bus stop. “The only person who said anything was Mr. Collins, who said ‘no,’ Brennan said.

The hearing before Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Hill Jr. was moved to a larger courtroom. Collins’ family members and friends, including parents Dawn and Richard II, filled several rows behind the prosecutors’ table.

Urbanski’s parents and family sat directly behind their son, who half-smiled at his parents as he entered the courtroom.

After more than an hour of arguments, and a 20-minute recess, Hill said while a defendant is afforded the right to a fair trial, the prosecution is also permitted to make its case to the jury.

While describing the memes found on Urbanski’s phone as “stupid,” Hill said he believed they are relevant for the jury to hear. Hill said Urbanski apparently added memes to his collection monthly, so “it’s a matter for the jury to determine” whether they showed intent.

The maximum penalty in Maryland for first-degree murder is life in prison with no chance of parole, and 20 years for a state hate crime conviction.

As WTOP reported in March, the FBI did not find enough evidence for federal hate crime charges against Urbanski, which in some cases would make him eligible for the death penalty.

“The FBI investigation has no bearing on the state’s ability to go forward,” Abbott said.

Urbanski’s trial is currently scheduled for July 22.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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