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Mistrial for Franklin Institute partygoer who stole finger from Chinese warrior statue

Michael Rohana, a 25-year-old shoe salesman from Bear, Del., described his act of vandalism and theft as a drunken, stupid mistake in testimony last week.

Federal authorities had accused Michael Rohana, 25, of Bear, Del., of allegedly snapping off and stealing the thumb of a more than 2,000-year-old terracotta warrior on loan to the Franklin Institute in 2017.
Federal authorities had accused Michael Rohana, 25, of Bear, Del., of allegedly snapping off and stealing the thumb of a more than 2,000-year-old terracotta warrior on loan to the Franklin Institute in 2017.Read moreCOURTESY OF THE FRANKLIN INSTITUTE

The trial of a Delaware man who confessed last year to drunkenly snapping off the finger of an ancient Chinese terra-cotta warrior statue at the Franklin Institute ended in a mistrial Tuesday, after the jury reported it was deadlocked on whether prosecutors had charged him under the appropriate law.

The panel of seven men and five women spent roughly 11 hours debating the fate of Michael Rohana, 25, of Bear, but was unable to reach a verdict on counts including theft and concealment of an object of cultural heritage.

U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker dismissed jurors just after 4:30 p.m., as Rohana’s family and supporters shared handshakes and hugs in the courtroom. Prosecutors said they would decide by May 15 whether to retry the case.

Rohana’s case made headlines across the globe as something of a joke after he was caught by security cameras sneaking into a closed museum exhibit during an after-hours “Ugly Sweater” Christmas party in 2017. The grainy footage showed him clowning around with warrior statues, eventually breaking the thumb off one of China’s most prized relics.

At trial, he never denied what he had done. But in interviews afterward, five of the jurors described a 7-5 split in favor of acquittal.

His lawyers, federal public defenders Catherine C. Henry and Nancy MacEoin, argued Rohana had been inappropriately charged under a law designed to prosecute intricately planned museum heists, not what they described as a case of youthful vandalism.

“These charges were made for art thieves — think like Ocean’s Eleven or Mission: Impossible,” Henry said in closing statements to jurors on Friday. Rohana "wasn’t in ninja clothing sneaking around the museum. He was a drunk kid in a bright green ugly Christmas sweater.”

Rohana, a shoe salesman at a Delaware department store who lives with his parents, described his vandalism and theft as a stupid mistake.

“I don’t know why I broke it,” he testified Thursday. “It didn’t just happen, but there was never a thought of, ‘I should break this.’”

Assistant U.S. Attorney K.T. Newton balked at those excuses during her final pitch to jurors.

“Michael Rohana deliberately broke the thumb,” Newton said. “He took it out of the Franklin Institute and he took it home. That is theft. That is stealing.”

The statue — a life-size figure known as The Cavalryman, insured at $4.5 million — is one of the few fully restored terra-cotta figures of the thousands recovered in fragments since the discovery by rural farmers in the 1970s of the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang.

The Chinese government strictly regulates research and restoration of the statues, and has prohibited their purchase or sale. The Franklin Institute was one of two U.S. museums Chinese officials let host a traveling exhibit of relics recovered for the emperor’s tomb in 2017.

That exhibition, between September of that year and March 2018, coincided with one of the institute’s periodic “Science After-Hours” events, programs aimed at attracting adults and often featuring themed activities and alcohol sales. Rohana came for the Christmas-themed “Ugly Sweater” party on Dec. 21.

As soon as he broke the thumb off The Cavalryman, Rohana testified, he knew he had made a mistake. He slipped the finger into his jeans pocket and ran from the room.

“Every time I see this video now, I’m trying to figure out, ‘What was going through your mind? What were you thinking?'” he testified Thursday. “I don’t know how I could have been so stupid.”

Institute staff did not notice the damage to the statue until about two weeks later, and the vandalism horrified Chinese officials, who demanded swift reprisals.

Once agents with the FBI’s Art Crime Team identified Rohana as their suspect, he immediately confessed and handed over the missing finger, which he had been keeping in a desk drawer in his bedroom.

The thumb has been returned to China, though museum officials testified at the trial that it has not yet been reattached.

In a statement, the Franklin Institute said it has taken steps to avoid similar situations in the future.

It read: “[We] are grateful for the work of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI in investigating and prosecuting this case.”