Lawyer: Aspen man’s views offensive, not illegal
The views of a 43-year-old Aspen man on trial for harassing and hurling ethnic slurs at a Hispanic man last fall are offensive but not against the law, the defendant’s lawyer said Thursday.
Robert Rice called the Hispanic man, who had fired him five months prior, a “wetback” and an “illegal,” a prosecutor said during opening arguments Thursday in Rice’s trial on three counts of misdemeanor harassment/ethnic intimidation.
“Mr. Rice believes deeply in his right to speak his mind,” said Alex Haynes, Rice’s public defender. “A lot of people won’t agree with what he says and believes.
“He told (the Hispanic man) to get out of this country. It’s offensive. But just because it’s offensive doesn’t mean it’s illegal.”
Prosecutor Denton Walker disagreed.
“Nobody in the United States has the right to harass somebody else … from a different country or race or ethnicity,” he said. “And that’s exactly what happened Oct. 19, 2015.”
The two men ran into each other at Local’s Corner that day, Walker said. After calling the Hispanic man names and wondering aloud why he hadn’t yet been deported, the situation “ended up with Rice pretending to accidentally spill coffee on the victim,” he said.
The Hispanic man laughed off the incident, then walked two blocks to Matsuhisa, but Rice followed him, Walker said. Rice again called the man names and told him he wanted to hurt him in front of his family, he said.
Haynes, however, said the two men were yelling at each other and that Rice’s insults were taken out of context.
“They know each other,” Haynes said. “These two just do not like each other.”
The Hispanic man had fired Rice five months before, Walker said.
The situation was not Rice’s first brush with the law. He was arrested by Aspen police in October 2011 after allegedly pushing a paraplegic Iraq war veteran out of his wheelchair and later spitting at the face of a police officer.
A district judge sentenced him to two years in the Pitkin County Jail after Rice pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts connected to that incident.
A Pitkin County jury of six men and women are scheduled to deliver a verdict today in the case.
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