A jury on Thursday found six defendants not guilty on all charges they were facing in connection with Inauguration Day protests in Washington, DC.
This was the first trial for the nearly 200 defendants still facing charges in connection with anti-Trump demonstrations on Jan. 20 that turned violent.
The verdict is a victory not only for the six defendants and their lawyers, but for other defense attorneys, anti-Trump activists, and free speech advocates who had criticized the mass arrests and prosecution as examples of government overreach and who worried the case signaled a new era of criminalizing political dissent.
"The jury thoughtfully distinguished First Amendment rights from criminal conduct," Steven McCool, one of the defense lawyers, told BuzzFeed News in an email. "They vindicated the constitutional rights of these defendants and all of us.
Asked about the verdict, one of the defendants, Alexei Wood, told BuzzFeed News in a text message: "Fuk them so hard."
More trials for other defendants are scheduled throughout 2018. A question going forward will be if the acquittal prompts the government to drop any cases or charges or if prosecutors will press ahead as planned. In a statement, however, the US Attorney's Office suggested it planned to move forward with the remaining pending charges against other defendants.
"The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia believes that the evidence shows that a riot occurred on January 20, 2017, during which numerous public and private properties were damaged or destroyed. This destruction impacted many who live and work in the District of Columbia, and created a danger for all who were nearby," per the statement. "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."
The next trial is scheduled to begin in March.
Police arrested 234 people on Jan. 20, charging them with rioting. A grand jury later returned an indictment that included charges for rioting and property destruction.
Over the following months, prosecutors dropped charges against 20 people, and reached plea deals with 20 others. Only one person, Dane Powell, has pleaded guilty to a felony charge; the rest admitted to misdemeanors. Powell is also the only person so far to receive a sentence of jail time — he was sentenced to four months.
The first trial — for Jennifer Armento, of Philadelphia; Michelle Macchio, of Asheville, N.C.; Oliver Harris, of Philadelphia; Brittne Lawson, of Aspinwall, Pa.; Christina Simmons, of Cockeysville, Md.; and Alexei Wood, of San Antonio, Texas — started in mid-November.
The jury began deliberating on Dec. 15. The six defendants faced seven charges: Five felony counts of property destruction, along with two misdemeanor counts of engaging in a riot and conspiracy to riot. The felony charges carry maximum penalties of 10 years in jail and a $25,000 fine. The misdemeanors have maximum penalties of 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The defendants initially faced an additional felony charge for inciting a riot, but Judge Lynn Leibovitz dismissed that count at the end of the trial. Leibovitz denied a motion from the defense to dismiss the rest of the charges as well, though.
The defendants are being tried in small groups, but the government still had to prove the charges against each defendant as an individual. The first group included people who said they were serving as medics and others who said they were participating in anti-Trump demonstrations but didn't participate in or support the violence. According to the government, the property destruction was valued at more than $100,000. Wood said he was at the protests as an independent journalist, and press freedom advocates have raised concerns about his prosecution.The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent a letter on Thursday to DC US Attorney Jessie Liu expressing concern about how one of the prosecutors presented information to the jury about Wood's knowledge of terminology about protest strategies and his lack of official press credentials in arguing he committed a crime.
"While journalists of course are not above the law and have no right to incite a riot or engage in acts of assault or vandalism, being near a newsworthy event is no crime for anyone, reporters included," the committee's executive director Bruce Brown wrote.
There was no evidence presented at the first trial that any of the six defendants were the ones who broke windows on Jan. 20. The prosecution's theory was that they were all still criminally responsible because they were there to support the rioters. The defense countered that under the First Amendment, people exercising their free speech rights weren't required to leave a protest just because someone near them was violent; they argued that the government hadn't shown evidence that the individual defendants were at the demonstration that day in order to back up the bad actors.
Defense lawyers, anti-Trump activists, and free speech advocates had been watching the first trial as a test of the prosecution and defense strategies in these cases — and in any future cases involving arrests of protesters — going forward.
“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. We hope today’s verdict begins the important work of teaching police and prosecutors to respect the line between lawbreaking and constitutionally protected protest," Scott Michelman, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of the District of Columbia, said in a statement. "We hope that the U.S. Attorney’s Office gets the message and moves quickly to drop all remaining changes against peaceful demonstrators."
The ACLU earlier this year filed a civil lawsuit against the Metropolitan Police Department alleging they used excessive conduct in responding to the protests on Jan. 20 and making arrests. That case is pending.
Updated with information about a letter sent by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Updated with comment from one of the defense lawyers and a defendant.
Updated with additional information about the verdict and other litigation related to the Jan. 20 protests.
The next trial in the Jan. 20 rioting case is scheduled to begin in March. A previous version of this story included an incorrect date.