Federal prosecutors will dismiss cases against 129 people still facing criminal charges in connection with mass arrests on President Donald Trump's Inauguration Day, according to court papers filed on Thursday.
Cases are pending for 188 defendants following the acquittal of six defendants at the end of the first trial in December. The government explained in its latest court filing that it planned to proceed with charges, including felony counts, against 59 defendants, but would file a motion to dismiss the indictment in the remaining 129 cases.
Assistant US Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff, the lead prosecutor, wrote that the government had decided to dismiss the majority of the cases "in light of the legal rulings by the court and the jury’s verdicts in the first trial of these cases."
The US attorney's office told the court that it would focus its efforts now on defendants who allegedly engaged in "identifiable acts of destruction, violence, or other assaultive conduct," participated in planning violence and destruction, or who knowingly participated in what's known as "black bloc" tactics in order to aid violence and destruction.
Police arrested 234 people during anti-Trump protests on Jan. 20 in downtown Washington, DC, that turned violent as some demonstrators broke store windows — the government tallied more than $100,000 in property damage. In the months that followed, prosecutors dropped charges against 20 defendants and 20 others accepted plea deals. Only one defendant, Dane Powell, pleaded guilty to a felony charge. Powell is also the only defendant to receive a sentence that included jail time — he was sentenced to four months.
Most of the 188 remaining defendants faced eight charges, including a felony count of inciting a riot, two misdemeanor counts of engaging in a riot and conspiracy to riot, and five felony counts of property destruction. Although the judge during the first trial granted a motion to acquit the defendants of the felony incitement charge at the conclusion of testimony, the government did not say in Thursday's filing that it planned to drop that charge.
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.
Elizabeth Lagesse, one of the defendants the government says it will still press charges against, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview that she would continue to maintain her innocence and fight the case. Lagesse is also a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit alleging excessive force and constitutional violations by the Metropolitan Police Department on Inauguration Day.
"My immediate reaction was just to be really, really happy because 129 people don't have to worry about this anymore. My second reaction was to be a little bit confused that I'm still on the list. I don't fit any of the criteria that they listed and I have absolutely no idea what their justification is," Lagesse said. "I'm just gonna keep on keepin' on."
Mark Goldstone, a defense lawyer whose two clients are also on the list of 59 people the government says it will continue to prosecute, told BuzzFeed News in an email, "Those 129 cases should have been dismissed a year ago, but we are very excited that the Government recognized that it was logically impossible for 217 defendants to have done the exact same conduct." He declined to comment on his clients' situation.
The 59 defendants still facing charges include Aaron Cantú, a journalist currently working as a staff reporter at the Santa Fe Reporter. His lawyer did not immediately return a request for comment. Press freedom advocates have denounced the arrest of journalists on Jan. 20 and have called on the government to drop the case against Cantú.
Cantú's lawyers on Friday filed a motion to dismiss the charges against him, arguing that they "impermissibly infringe his First Amendment rights."
Lawyers for the government and a group of defendants appeared in court on Friday morning for a status hearing. The next trial was set to begin March 5, but the judge set new trial dates for April and farther into the year for those defendants.
The cases have been assigned to a new judge in the District of Columbia Superior Court because of standard calendar reshuffling among the judges. Chief Judge Robert Morin — who last year presided over disputes about the government's efforts to enforce search warrants against Facebook and a web hosting company in its investigation of the Inauguration Day cases — will take over from Judge Lynn Leibovitz, who had handled the cases from the start.
In anticipation of a year of trials — the defendants were divided into small groups with trials set through October 2018 — defendants and their supporters took part in a call drive last week to register their opposition to the prosecution with the US attorney's office. Lagesse told BuzzFeed News that several hundred people participated across the United States and in Canada and the United Kingdom, and that some even reached Kerkhoff on the phone. The US attorney's office declined to comment.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.