In Brief

After Breaking Thumb off Terracotta Warrior, Man Points Finger at Museum

The Franklin Institute is locked in a legal battle with the finger’s thief, but the defendant’s lawyers are demanding that the museum release security records that could prove this was merely a case of drunken vandalism.

Terracotta warriors (image via Wikimedia Commons)

News that the thumb of a 2,000-year-old Chinese terracotta warrior was stolen by a guest of the Franklin Institute’s annual Ugly Sweater Party has become the least of the Philadelphia museum’s worries. The theft, which occurred in December 2017, resulted in three felony charges for Michael Rohana. Two public defenders representing the Delaware man are now petitioning the court for information about the museum’s security protocols and correspondences.

According to a February 27 filing reviewed by the Courier Post, Rohana and two other guests were able to enter the darkened exhibit space housing the warrior more than two hours after the boozy holiday party began.

“Needless to say, when Mr. Rohana in his ugly green sweater entered the Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor exhibit to explore it, he was intoxicated,” the filing states.

The lawyers would like access to the museum’s security records to help investigate whether or not Rohana’s actions were “more consistent with vandalism than with the specific intent to steal.”

When the thumb-napping story broke (pun intended) in early 2018, Chinese officials urged American authorities to “severely punish those who have done [this]” in an interview between the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relic Exchange Center’s director and the state-run Chinese newspaper, Beijing Youth Daily.

The 209 BCE statue from the Qin Dynasty is valued at $4.5 million and is considered a priceless piece of China’s cultural heritage. The life-size statues were originally built to guard the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The site where they were discovered by a Shaanxi province farmer in 1974 is now a United Nations world heritage site.

The de-thumbed warrior in question was part of a traveling exhibit that was scheduled to run at the Franklin Institute from September 30, 2017, to March 4, 2018. It included 10 sculptures from the Shaanxi mausoleum site.

Although the alleged theft occurred on December 21, museum employees didn’t notice the missing digit until January 8, when the FBI Art Crime Unit was called in to investigate. Surveillance footage helped lead to Rohana’s arrest.

Court records say that “when asked if he had anything in his possession he wanted to turn over to the FBI, Mr. Rohana stated he had a finger from a museum.” Rohana retrieved the thumb from his desk drawer in his bedroom.

In addition to security footage, the public defenders also want a subpoena to access the museum’s record of alcohol sales the night of the Ugly Sweater Party, saying evidence of intoxication “may show that Mr. Rohana did not have the intent to commit the offense.”

The request comes because, the lawyers say, the museum has not complied with earlier requests for multiple records, including communications between the Franklin Institute and Chinese authorities.

Federal prosecutors have rebuffed these attempts, saying that the case “is not about any alleged negligence by the Franklin Institute. Nor is it about any accidental damage to objects exhibited at the Franklin Institute.”

Opposing access to security records, Assistant US Attorney K.T. Newton clarified the government’s position that “this case is about [Rohana’s] guilt or innocence.” She added: “This is nothing more than a cover for the use of this information for jury nullification.” (Jury nullification defines the concept in which jurors exonerate a defendant on the grounds of opposing a law because they think it is unjust and not because they believe the accused has actually broken it.)

The severity of Rohana’s prospective punishment also hinges on the thumb’s market value, which prosecutors estimate is $150,000. The defense says that this number is immaterial because the Chinese government owns the terracotta warriors, which cannot be sold; furthermore, they contend that market value for the whole statue cannot prove “the market value of the individual thumb.”

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