The women’s rights protester who was arrested for exposing her chest outside the Virginia Capitol was released from jail on Thursday after being initially held without bail.
Judge Lawrence B. Cann III allowed Michelle Renay Sutherland, 45, to be released without posting any bond after initially ordering her held indefinitely, the woman’s lawyer, David Baugh, said. Cann explained his initial decision to hold her without bail by saying the only information that he had in front of him at the time was that she had made an obscene display of her body — not that she was in Virginia as part of a protest, Baugh said.
“As far as he knew she’s a flasher,” Baugh said. “He said, ‘When I denied you bond you had no ties to Virginia, and this is all I had in front of me.’”
In a phone interview shortly after her release, Sutherland, 45, an artist and activist who goes by the name “Sister Leona,” told The Washington Post that said she didn’t know whether she’d be held until her trial date, in mid-March.
“I was sitting in jail with women who have murder charges, and here I am a protester,” she said. “I was very surprised that I didn’t get out that same day.”
She said she passed the time by talking to the 25 other women she was housed with — about what they were in for, how to play spades and the cause she had been protesting for, the Equal Rights Amendment, a constitutional measure that aims to ensure equal rights for women. Sutherland said she led an informal hour-long class at the jail about the ERA, which is currently the subject of a political fight in Richmond.
Sutherland was arrested on Monday. She and Natalie White, an artist and vice president of the advocacy group Equal Means Equal, decided to portray Virginia’s state seal, which shows Virtus — the genius of the Commonwealth and the female personification of virtue — standing over Tyranny, a man played by White.
Virtus’s left breast is exposed on the seal — and so was Sutherland’s.
Then police came.
Sutherland was booked Monday on a charge of indecent exposure, a misdemeanor. But then Judge Cann sentenced her to be held in jail without bail, according to officials — an unusually strict measure given the low-level crime she was charged with. Her next court appearance is scheduled for March 21.
Sutherland’s detention on such a minor charge drew local media attention, amid a heated battle in Virginia over the Equal Rights Amendment.
“Showing a breast as part of a satirical act of protest is not obscene,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia tweeted. “The real obscenity at the Capitol is lawmakers standing in the way of constitutional equality against the will of the people.”
“This is ridiculous that she would get held without bond for doing an artistic reenactment for standing up for equal rights for women,” White told The Washington Post. “This is obviously politically motivated. They’re trying to send us a clear sign that they’re trying to silence women in Virginia.”
In an email, Michael Herring, the Richmond commonwealth’s attorney, said he believed it was unfortunate that Sutherland was held without bail.
“We were not consulted on the issue of bond, but we also failed to speak up and recommend that she be released on recognizance,” he said.
Sutherland is still facing the misdemeanor charge. Baugh, her lawyer, said that though the state’s statute stipulates that it’s illegal to make an obscene display with your body, case law demonstrates that a conviction requires the display to have been made with a sexual intent.
“To be convicted, there must be an obscene display and there must be some solicitous enticement along with the obscene display — something going in prurient interest,” he said. “I have seen no evidence of allegation of that. It’s my understanding she was out there demonstrating, not trying to get a date.”
The arrest happened Monday around 3:30 p.m., said Joseph Macenka, a spokesman for the Virginia Capitol Police.
“Officers identified themselves, asked her several times to cover up her left breast,” Macenka said. “Instead of doing that she arranged her clothing in such a manner so that both of her breasts were then exposed.”
Sutherland was taken to the Richmond City Justice Center jail, where she was booked on a single count of indecent exposure, Macenka said.
Kevin Martingayle, a lawyer in Virginia Beach and former president of the Virginia State Bar, told the Times-Dispatch that he believes Sutherland’s action was political speech and therefore “entitled to the highest free speech protection known to law.”
“She should win, and the denial of bond seems to be totally inappropriate,” he said. “I am very surprised to see that done in a case in which she’d be unlikely to get jail time even if convicted.”
Cann did not return a message left at the number listed for him in public records on Wednesday evening.
The ERA, which would bar discrimination based on sex if ratified by three-quarters of the states, was introduced 95 years ago by suffragist Alice Paul. By 1982, 35 states had passed it, three shy of the total needed for ratification. The effort languished for years but has gained renewed prominence recently.
Nevada and Illinois have since passed the amendment; Virginia would be the 38th and last state needed to ratify it, though there are discussions about whether time has expired on the amendment. It is not clear it will get to that point, however. In the past seven years, it has died five times in the state’s Republican-controlled House of Delegates after passing in the Senate and is believed to be a long shot to pass this year before the end of the legislature’s session Saturday.
Still activists and organizations have focused their attention on the state, buying billboards along Interstate 95, taking out newspaper ads and mailing thousands of postcards.
Sutherland said she was disappointed by her arrest.
“We were out there protesting as well as wearing the costumes of the state seal,” she said. “Ironic isn’t even the word, I was definitely angry. To be sexualized in that way — we’re just out here speaking up for women.”
Patricia Sullivan and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.