A Delaware man who confessed to drunkenly snapping a finger off an ancient Chinese terra-cotta warrior statue at the Franklin Institute in 2017 is not out from under the government’s thumb just yet.
Federal prosecutors told a judge Thursday that they intend to retry Michael Rohana, 25, on charges of theft and concealment of an object of cultural heritage. Their decision comes a month after a jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict after a weeklong trial, stymied by questions of whether he had been appropriately charged.
Rohana’s lawyers — federal public defenders Catherine C. Henry and Nancy MacEoin — panned the government’s insistence on a second trial as a “waste of the court’s resources.”
“For a U.S. Attorney’s Office who routinely holds press conferences touting their commitment to fight violent crime and serious immigration cases, the prosecution of Mr. Rohana’s petty act of vandalism seems contrary to that,” Henry said.
At trial, they argued that their client had been inappropriately charged under a law designed to prosecute intricately planned museum heists, not what they described as a case of youthful, possibly criminal, mischief.
Still, U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain said Thursday he never questioned after last month’s mistrial whether his office again would seek a conviction.
“The kind of brazen theft of priceless antiquities alleged here violated the public trust and will never be tolerated,” McSwain said in a statement. “To have an ancient relic survive intact for more than two millennia, only to be stolen and defaced here in Philadelphia, is an embarrassment to our city.”
For his part, Rohana, a department store shoe salesman who lives with his parents in Bear, Del., described his decision as a stupid, drunken mistake.
“I don’t know why I broke it,” he testified during his trial. “It didn’t just happen, but there was never a thought of, ‘I should break this.’”
Grainy museum security footage showed Rohana sneaking into a closed exhibit during a 2017 after-hours “Ugly Sweater” Christmas party, clowning around with warrior statues and eventually breaking the thumb off one of the most prized relics of the collection — an intricately carved, life-size terra-cotta figure known as “The Cavalryman.”
Insured at $4.5 million, it is one of the few fully restored statues from the thousands recovered in fragments from the ancient 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 chosen by Chinese officials to host a 2017 traveling exhibit of relics recovered from the emperor’s tomb.
Museum staff did not notice the damage to the statue until about two weeks after the party. Chinese officials, many of whom testified at trial, were horrified and demanded swift reprisals.
Once the FBI’s Art Crime Team identified Rohana as the suspect and tracked him to his parents’ house, he confessed and handed over the missing finger, which he had stashed in a desk drawer in his bedroom.
Although the thumb and the statue have been returned to China, officials there say that the digit has not been reattached.
Jurors in Rohana’s trial blamed their inability to reach a verdict in part on difficulty in determining the value of the thumb. The law with which he was charged required that the stolen object be worth more than $5,000, and competing experts offered wildly varying figures for how much the terra-cotta digit was worth when separated from the warrior.
In the end, jurors described a 7-5 split to acquit.