Racist memes on a cellphone and a racist Facebook page can be used as evidence in the trial of a white man charged with murder and a hate crime in a black student’s fatal stabbing on the University of Maryland’s campus, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Sean Urbanski’s attorneys argued it would deprive their client of a fair trial if jurors were to see evidence that the 24-year-old liked a Facebook page called “Alt-Reich: Nation” and had at least six photographs of racist memes on his phone.
Prince George’s County prosecutors said the racist content found on Urbanski’s cellphone point to a motive for the killing, indicating he stabbed Bowie State University student Richard Collins III because he was black.
“These photographs show that the defendant has a bias against black people,” said deputy state’s attorney Jason Abbott. “These photos show violence against black people.”
Urbanski’s lawyers argued the material is inflammatory, irrelevant and inadmissible, with no connection between the content and the killing.
“Possessing racially insensitive material is not against the law. It is protected by the First Amendment,” said defense attorney William Brennan, who cited a New York Times story that suggested the Facebook page was created as a parody.
But Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Hill Jr. denied the defense’s request to exclude the evidence from a trial scheduled to start in late July.
“There are some (memes), or a few, that do suggest some level of violence,” the judge said. “It will not be unfairly prejudicial for the state to use this evidence.”
Urbanski is charged with first-degree murder and a hate crime in the May 2017 killing of Collins, 23, who was visiting friends at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus when he was stabbed to death at a bus stop.
Defense lawyers argued that the racist material extracted from Urbanski’s cellphone and the deleted Facebook page are constitutionally protected free speech, but Hill also refused Wednesday to throw out the hate crime charge on First Amendment grounds.
“Every person has a right of freedom of speech,” Hill said. “The defendant is not here for a violation of freedom of speech.”
Urbanski is a former University of Maryland student. Collins was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army shortly before his death.
Authorities said Urbanski approached Collins and two of his friends near a bus stop on the university’s College Park campus about 3 a.m. Urbanski said, “Step left, step left if you know what’s best for you,” and Collins replied, “No,” before Urbanski stabbed him once in the chest, according to charging documents.
Brennan, the defense attorney, said witnesses told investigators that Urbanski was extremely drunk and screaming incoherently when he approached the three friends at the bus stop.
“They could not understand what he was saying,” Brennan said.
Police determined that Urbanski’s blood alcohol content was .10 approximately eight hours after the killing, according to Brennan. He said a defense expert estimates Urbanski’s blood alcohol content would have been nearly three times the legal limit of .08 at the time of the fatal stabbing.
Prosecutors said Urbanski stabbed Collins because he was the only black person at the bus stop that night. The friends who were with Collins that night were a white male and an Asian female. Assistant State’s Attorney Jonathan Church said Urbanski separately told the white friend and Asian friend to “step left.”
“And then he goes straight for Lt. Collins and stabs him in the chest,” Church added.
Brennan said there’s no evidence that Collins was “selected” because he was black.
Prosecutors showed surveillance video of the killing to the judge on a screen that wasn’t visible from the courtroom gallery. After stabbing Collins, Urbanski folded the knife, put it in his pocket and sat down on a bench until police arrived, according to Church.
Prosecutors also showed the judge the racist memes found on Urbanski’s phone. One of them “advocates violence against blacks,” while another has an image of a noose, a handgun and poison, Church said.
Church said the racist images had been saved in a folder that also contained photos of Urbanski with friends and relatives — “the most intimate details of his life,” the prosecutor added.
“They are about who he is and what he is about,” Church said.
Urbanski’s lawyers also asked the judge to sever the hate crime charge from the first-degree murder charge and schedule separate trials for each count. Hill rejected that request, too.