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Lawrence anti-mask protester will face trial in alleged assault at vaccine clinic for kids

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Article updated at 7:49 p.m. Thursday, April 21:

Video and voice recordings that played in court before a Lawrence man was bound over for trial on Thursday captured the anti-mask protester yelling obscenities at police and witnesses just after an alleged assault.

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After hearing two witnesses and several recordings, Douglas County District Court Judge Sally Pokorny ruled that there was enough evidence to show that Justin Spiehs, 40, should face two felony charges of aggravated assault in connection with an incident that happened outside of a vaccine clinic at West Middle School on Nov. 13. A third charge of interfering with law enforcement was dropped prior to the preliminary hearing.

A man and his 9-year-old son testified on Thursday that Spiehs appeared to be yelling at passing cars while protesting outside of the school with a faded sign featuring a swastika. The father said he and his son were walking toward the clinic entrance when Spiehs called him a “dumb, stupid woman.”

The man said he was not sure why Spiehs became enraged with him, but he instinctually turned around and then moved to put himself between Spiehs and his son. Spiehs allegedly ripped his sign from the piece of wood it was attached to and walked toward them “waiving the stick around,” eventually coming within 10 feet of the two.

“At some point he seemed to fixate on me and my son,” the man said. “I didn’t have any idea why he would be yelling at me. I was a little worried for myself, but mostly for my son.”

The man said he had never personally met Spiehs, but he was familiar with him after repeatedly seeing him among anti-mask protesters outside of school district headquarters on his way home from work.

Defense attorney Thomas Johnson argued that Spiehs had not presented any immediate danger, and that the man had formed preconceived notions about his client based on media reports.

Andrea Albright / The Lawrence Times Justin Spiehs (left) listens as his attorney, Thomas Johnson, questions a witness during a preliminary hearing on April 21, 2022 in Douglas County District Court. Senior Assistant District Attorney Nick Vrana sits at right. Spiehs was bound over for trial on two counts of aggravated assault.

“You took an immediate dislike to him, didn’t you?” Johnson said. “You wanted to confront him, didn’t you?”

A recording of the man’s call to 911 was played in court and revealed that he had called Spiehs “the worst of America.” The voice of someone yelling could be heard in the background of the call, and the 911 operator advised the man to move away from Spiehs as he waited for police to arrive.

Former Lawrence police officer Amber Rhoden responded to the incident and recorded body cam footage of her interview with the man at the scene. That footage included Spiehs repeatedly yelling “false” after each statement made by the man, and also recorded him demanding to be given an opportunity to speak.

“You don’t know shit that happened,” Spiehs said. “All you have is this little [expletive]’s story. He came at me.”

Pokorny pointed out that all statements made by Spiehs in recordings played Thursday were considered hearsay because a defendant is not required to testify during a preliminary hearing.

The man’s son also took the stand to testify, swearing an oath to tell the truth and then stating that he would be turning 10 this weekend. Asking Johnson and Senior Assistant District Attorney Nick Vrana for clarification on several questions, the boy relayed a story similar to his father’s. He said that even though Spiehs had never come within arm’s reach, he was still worried that he or his father might be harmed.

“He did threaten to do it,” the boy said. “I was scared that he would hit me. He would have had to come down [closer on the sidewalk], but that’s what I was afraid of.”

Johnson then asked the boy if his father had said anything to him about Spiehs as they approached the vaccination clinic.

“He just told me to ignore him,” the boy said.

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At the conclusion of testimony, Vrana asked the judge to bind Spiehs over for trial on the two charges of aggravated assault, because “both witnesses testified that they were afraid the defendant would hit them with a stick.”

In Kansas law, “assault” is defined as “knowingly placing another person in reasonable apprehension of immediate bodily harm,” or essentially threatening someone. Aggravated assault is a level-7 (low-level) felony. A charge of battery would indicate that a person made physical contact with another person.

Johnson, who was assisted in the hearing by fellow defense attorney Matthew Donnelly, argued that no evidence of a weapon had been presented in court, and neither the man nor his son appeared to have reasonable apprehension of immediate harm.

As she made her ruling, Pokorny said it would be up to a jury to decide whether the victims faced immediate harm. She said she heard enough evidence to proceed to trial.

“I would note that when I was watching that video, my heart rate went up significantly,” the judge said. “A stick can be a deadly weapon. It can cause bodily harm.”

Spiehs waived his right to have the charges against him read in court. He then entered a plea of not guilty. Pokorny scheduled a three-day trial to begin Sept. 12. A status conference is scheduled for 9 a.m. Sept. 2.

This case is not connected to Spiehs’ Wednesday arrest at the Douglas County Courthouse. A spokesperson for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said deputies arrested Spiehs on suspicion of disorderly conduct, “after observing his conduct of loud, rude and profane language and actions directed at a resident attending the Douglas County Commission meeting Wednesday evening.”

Spiehs’ defense attorneys and Vrana declined to comment for this article. Johnson and Donnelly also did not respond to a Wednesday evening email seeking comment about Spiehs’ arrest.

All arrestees and defendants in criminal cases should be presumed not guilty unless and until they are convicted.

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Andrea Albright (she/her), reporter, can be reached at aalbright (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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Lawrence anti-mask protester will face trial in alleged assault at vaccine clinic for kids

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Video and voice recordings that played in court before a Lawrence man was bound over for trial on Thursday captured the anti-mask protester yelling obscenities at police and witnesses just after an alleged assault.

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