PROVIDENCE — In one of Rhode Island’s first hate crime cases in more than five years, a retired oral surgeon from Barrington was found guilty Wednesday of disorderly conduct and assaulting his Iranian-American neighbor in a dispute over a misplaced boundary marker.
However, District Court Judge Stephen Isherwood said while he found the epithets and racial slurs used by Dr. Richard Gordon were “deplorable,” he wasn’t convinced this was a hate crime. He agreed to wait to sentence Gordon until next week, allowing the attorney general’s office time to respond.
“Like most Americans, I find the actions and the horrendous spoken words of Dr. Gordon on Aug. 3 to be deplorable and repulsive,” Isherwood said. “However, because the only variable having brought these parties together on Aug. 3 was an emotional boundary dispute, I find the Hate Crimes Sentencing Act is not applicable.”
Gordon was found guilty of assaulting his neighbor, Bahram Pahlavi, over the placement of a property marker by a surveyor hired by Pahlavi, the judge said. In two videos recorded by Pahlavi, Gordon is yelling racial slurs and other obscenities at him, even as Gordon’s wife, Patricia, apologized for him and tried to get him to stop. Pahlavi’s wife, Iman Ali Pahlavi, posted the videos on Facebook, and they were used as evidence in the trial.
However, the judge said, none of the evidence showed that Gordon “intentionally selected” Pahlavi for an attack based on hatred or animus for his race, religion, national origin, or any other factors covered by the state hate crimes statute. The “emotional boundary dispute” was the genesis of the incident, Isherwood said.
The Pahlavis, sitting in the courtroom, exchanged glances with each other. Gordon, sitting with his lawyer, retired state Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders Jr., slightly shook his head.
Before the judge could sentence Gordon on the two convictions, assistant attorney general John Moreira asked for a continuance to make the case that the hate crimes act applies. The sentencing date is now Feb. 9.
Rhode Island does not have a hate crimes law, but under the Hate Crimes Sentencing Act, prosecutors can notify the judge that they intend to ask for a more severe sentence based on what they believe is a defendant’s motivation in committing a crime. The sentence enhancement adds another 30 days and cannot be suspended or dismissed.
That includes misdemeanor cases, such as Gordon’s arrest, which state prosecutors wouldn’t typically handle. Attorney General Peter F. Neronha had announced that his office was focused on reviewing possible hate crime cases and, in December, established a special civil rights team to focus on investigating and prosecuting hate crimes and police misconduct.
The Pahlavis case was one of two for which the attorney general’s office announced it would seek sentence enhancements for hate crimes. The other, of a South Kingstown woman who allegedly shouted racial epithets at a Black family at the Coast Guard House in Narragansett, is pending at District Court.
The Pahlavi family had moved to the tony Rumstick Point neighborhood three years ago, and had met the Gordons at a summer cookout, but otherwise had no contact with them. Although during the trial in December, the Pahlavis had referred to past incidents — a rosa rugosa bush that died, nails in their driveway that flattened tires — they had no evidence showing who caused the problems.
Last summer, a surveyor hired by the Pahlavis placed stakes in the property as they prepared to build a garage. One of the stakes was hammered into the Gordons’ property — later discovered to be a mistake by the surveyor — and when the Gordons pulled it out, Pahlavi went back and hammered it in.
Pahlavi testified that Gordon came storming out of his house, shouting obscenities and racial epithets at him. When both of their wives intervened, and as Pahlavi tried to sort out what happened, the videos showed Gordon “mocking” and being disruptive, Isherwood said. “Certainly, not acting like an adult, but instead acting like an aggrieved child,” the judge said, adding that Gordon changed his behavior when the Barrington police arrived.
Flanders had argued that Gordon was the victim and that Pahlavi had hit Gordon with a hammer, though there was no evidence of Pahlavi hitting Gordon.
Gordon testified that he acted in self-defense against his neighbor by swearing at Pahlavi and calling him names “to distract him.” Flanders also told the court that Gordon’s “offensive speech” was protected speech and didn’t amount to disorderly conduct.
“Had he not used the ‘N word’, I don’t believe we’d be here,” Flanders said in his closing arguments last month. “But, it’s a sign of the times we’re in, in the wake of incidents that occurred, and Black Lives Matter.”
Black Lives Matter held several demonstrations after the incident, outside Town Hall and on the edge of the Gordons’ property.
Moreira had called that argument “baloney.”
“This is nonsensical on its face,” Moreira said in his closing arguments in January. “He’s claiming he’s assaulted and he’s going to fend him off by calling him by racial slurs and swearing at him?”
The judge agreed Wednesday.
“I find Richard Gordon’s testimony to be beyond belief, nothing short of astonishing,” Isherwood said. “Dr. Gordon justified his use of deplorable and horrific language as a distraction ... to survive. He even testified that he was satisfied that this instantaneous distraction was successful.”
But, it was Gordon who became enraged when he saw Pahlavi putting a stake back in the ground, the judge said. “It is simply not possible that his vulgar and vicious words were intended to distract,” Isherwood said.
Gordon didn’t respond to questions outside the courtroom, and Flanders declined comment until the sentencing. The Pahlavis also declined to comment.