Six people who were arrested at protests during President Trump’s inauguration in January have been found not guilty of charges of property destruction and rioting, in the first of a series of trials over Inauguration Day demonstrations.
Some black-clad protesters broke windows in D.C. during anti-Trump demonstrations on Jan. 20. More than 230 people were originally arrested and charged with felony rioting in connection to protests, as NPR’s Laurel Wamsley reported last month.
Some of those charges have been dropped, and some protesters have entered guilty pleas, but more than 180 people have cases pending in the court system.
Those cases are expected to continue, in small batches, into 2018, and the acquittal of the defendants in the first trial could have serious implications for the cases that follow.
The first batch of defendants ranged in age from 20 to 38 and included residents of Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina and Texas. If they had been convicted, they faced prison terms that could have stretched for decades.
As member station WAMU reported on Monday, some charges had already been dropped by the time the jury considered the case.
“The defendants, including protesters, two street medics, and a photojournalist, originally faced a felony charge of inciting a riot,” WAMU wrote. “That charge was thrown out, but they still face five felony counts of property destruction and two misdemeanor charges for engaging in a riot and conspiracy to riot.”
A jury acquitted the defendants of all the charges on Thursday.
The verdict is “a setback for the prosecution’s approach to the case,” The Associated Press reports:
“From the start, government prosecutors did not attempt to prove that any of the defendants had personally committed acts of violence or vandalism. Instead they argued that the entire group of protesters, many of whom wore face masks, was guilty of supporting and providing cover as others smashed windows downtown and set fire to a parked limo on K Street. …
“Much of the evidence consisted of a variety of videos, from security cameras, police helicopters and, in some cases, posted to social media by the defendants themselves. Prosecutors also interviewed dozens of witnesses, but none who could identify any of the defendants as a perpetrator.
“The prosecution also used video supplied to them by Project Veritas, a controversial right-wing activist collective that uses guerrilla tactics in defense of conservative causes. The Washington Post recently revealed an apparent sting operation designed to discredit the newspaper by planting a false story against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.
“In the trial, prosecutors showed video from a pre-inauguration protest planning meeting that had been infiltrated by a Project Veritas operative. It showed organizers advising protesters on how to handle confrontations with the police, but contained no evidence of plans to commit violence or vandalism.
“Even before the jury began its deliberations, Judge Lynn Leibovitz seriously damaged the government’s case by throwing out the most serious charge against the six — a felony charge of inciting a riot. Leibovitz said there simply wasn’t evidence to support the charge and the jury’s verdict proved that prosecutors had failed to present convincing evidence to support even the remaining lesser charges.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of D.C., which filed an amicus brief in support of the defendants and has sued the D.C. police department over officers’ actions during the inauguration protests, celebrated the verdict.
“Today’s verdict reaffirms two central constitutional principles of our democracy: First, that dissent is not a crime, and second, that our justice system does not permit guilt by association,” senior staff attorney Scott Michelman said in a statement. “No one should have to fear arrest or prosecution for coming to the nation’s capital to express opinions peacefully, no matter what those opinions may be.”
Michelman urged the U.S. Attorney’s Office to drop charges against the other demonstrators facing trial.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, in a statement emailed to NPR, said the office “believes that the evidence shows that a riot occurred” on Inauguration Day, damaging “numerous public and private properties.”
“This destruction impacted many who live and work in the District of Columbia, and created a danger for all who were nearby,” spokesman Bill Miller said. “The criminal justice process ensures that every defendant is judged based on his or her personal conduct and intent. We appreciate the jury’s close examination of the individual conduct and intent of each defendant during this trial and respect its verdict. In the remaining pending cases, we look forward to the same rigorous review for each defendant.”