Don Kerr at last Thursday's press conference. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Hours after an Ulster County Grand Jury dismissed charges against former New Paltz School Board president Donald Kerr for criminal possession of marijuana in the second degree, Kerr held a press conference outside his office at 183 Main Street, where the arrest had originally been made in November 2011. Kerr was part of a joint US Postal Service and New Paltz Police Department investigation that was tracking illegal drug distribution through the mail. Kerr signed for a package that included approximately eight pounds of marijuana with a street value of $32,000. The package was addressed to a fictitious name, and Kerr claimed then and again last Thursday that he was simply doing what he does on a regular basis and what “receptionists around the country do every day”: signing for a package for one of the many tenants who rented either office space or apartments at the building where his own office was located. Kerr said that he didn’t feel “exonerated” because he knew that he was never guilty, but a victim of the US Postal Service investigators. “They got it really wrong that day, and in doing so, they robbed me of my reputation and my life for several months. Now I need to start building my reputation and my life back brick by brick, which I look forward to doing.”

Ulster County district attorney Holley Carnright sent out a statement after the charges against Kerr were dropped by the Grand Jury on Thursday, April 12. “We respect the Grand Jury’s decision,” said the DA. “It is not a goal of this office to prosecute individuals where the evidence in the case is insufficient, which apparently was the finding of the Grand Jury. The decision of this independent investigative body reflects the commitment I made to the residents of Ulster County: that persons accused of crimes will be treated fairly by the district attorney as their cases proceed through the criminal justice system. All cases which proceed to the Grand Jury are presented in a fair and ethical manner. Although it is my decision whether or not to present a case to the Grand Jury, the decision to indict rests solely on the shoulders of the Grand Jury.”

Having been silenced for months on the case as it made its way through the courts, hours after the charges were dropped Kerr had much to say. Standing in a suit and tie in front of an American flag, Kerr praised the New Paltz Police Department, but had less kind words for US Postal investigators. Pointing to the building across the street, formerly a hookah bar, Kerr said, “The US Postal Service rented out that building, installed surveillance cameras and were watching this building. And yet they couldn’t wait for a few more seconds to see what I did with the package? I signed for it — as I often do for many of the tenants or businesses here — and was planning on placing it on the front porch step” when he was arrested on Nov. 4 at approximately 6 p.m. “They couldn’t record where I put the package? Who was the person who picked it up? They had the tools and the infrastructure to catch the real bad guy! If that’s how they conduct their investigations, then receptionists all over the country could be thrown in jail.”

Kerr referred to the climate shortly after his arrest as a “media circus,” and said that it took a great toll on his family. “I care about them more than I care about myself, and it was very hard on them.” He said that his family was “incredibly supportive” of him, as were his friends, who “all knew I was innocent, but had to endure the strain.”

This was not the first brush with the law that Kerr has incurred that involved suspected marijuana use. The former school board president faced misdemeanor drug charges in the past, stemming from a 2008 arrest and a 1999 arrest for driving under the influence (DUI) and misdemeanor marijuana possession charges. However, Kerr ultimately accepted a plea deal that dropped DUI and marijuana possession charges if he pled guilty to reckless driving in 2010.

School board members at that time said that they had no power to remove Kerr from office, because the courts had not found him guilty of a drug charge. Kerr stayed on the board and was elected to another term as president. But when Kerr was arrested in 2011 for signing for the package containing an illicit substance, he decided to resign as president so as not to disrupt the “important” work that his colleagues on the school board were doing. “I did not want to bring that upon the good people of the school board, [superintendent of schools] Maria Rice, the teachers…,” he said.

Asked if he would consider running for the school board again, Kerr said, “This news is only hours old. I have real thick skin, real proud shoulders, but I need to let my family heal and myself heal a bit.” Even after his recent arrest, Kerr continued to serve on the joint Town/Village Public Access Committee, and he has recently offered to serve on one of the consolidation committees. When asked if the “media circus” to which he referred (the arrest made news in the Wall Street Journal) had anything to do with the prior charges that he faced, but of which he was not convicted, Kerr said, “That’s too big of a leap. That’s like saying that someone who flies paper airplanes might be a suspect in driving the plane into a building.”

He said that he’s “not that dumb to have a box delivered to me under a false name and then sign for it. That’s silly. Yet this was serious business. I was charged with a felony!”

When asked if he felt that he could have been set up, Kerr said, “I’ve thought about that, but I just don’t think I’m that important. For someone to spend $32,000 to try and set me up? First of all, I’m really not that important; and second of all, who would have that kind of money?”

Kerr thanked his family and all of the people who wrote letters in support of him and set up Facebook and other online support. “You learn who your friends are, and I’m so grateful to those people who believe in America, who believe in the criminal justice system and that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. The system worked.” ++