Six defendants facing decades in prison for protesting the presidential in the District of Columbia on January 20, 2017, were found not guilty in a trial that raised serious concerns about First Amendment rights in the age of Donald Trump.
A Washington, DC, jury cleared the defendants of all seven charges against them, which included rioting and multiple counts of property destruction.
The six defendants are Michelle Macchio, 26, of Naples, Fla., Jennifer Armento, 38, of Philadelphia; Christina Simmons, 20, of Cockeysville, Md.; Alexei Wood, 37, of San Antonio; Oliver Harris, 28, of Philadelphia; and Brittne Lawson, 27, of Pittsburgh. They were the first of nearly 200 defendants due to stand trial for their involvement in the 20 January protests.
Wood is a photojournalist who livestreamed the entire demonstration, enthusiastically narrating the events as they happened.
Prosecutors admitted there is no evidence that the six defendants caused any damage but claim that they bear responsibility because they were part of the group participating in a series of demonstrations on Inauguration Day.
Assistant US Attorneys Jennifer Kerkhoff and Rizwan Quereshi argued that although the six people on trial did not break windows or cause any damage, they were guilty of rioting by wearing black, covering their faces and cheering while others caused destruction of more than $100,000 in property and injuries to law enforcement officers.
Wood’s lawyer, Brett Cohen, instead pointed to emails his client sent to different outlets offering to cover the inauguration for them, noting that he had no connection to the event’s organizers but instead came to the nation’s capitol for a “newsworthy event.”
The evidence also shows that two of the defendants, Lawson and Macchio, were street medics there to dispense first aid.
Jude Ortiz, a member of the Defend J20 team that mobilized to support the defendants, called the decision “a victory for political organizing”.
“The prosecutor was trying to claim political organizing was conspiracy,” said Oritz. ”And these acquittals show that that logic is not being bought. Hopefully that will send a very persuasive message to prosecutors everywhere that they’re not going to get away with criminalizing protest organizing.”
Unlike demonstrators in the other actions, hundreds of Disrupt J20 protesters were corralled by police and arrested.
On the morning of January 20, police surrounded and arrested more than 200 of the participants in a tactic known as kettling, after some people among the crowd had broken windows, thrown chairs, and assaulted a limousine driver.
DC police and the city are facing lawsuits from the ACLU of DC for misconduct, including unconstitutional arrests and excessive force.
During the trial, defense attorneys hammered Commander Keith Deville, the officer in charge that day, for not giving a dispersal order to protesters before officers corralled them, as DC police standard operating procedure calls for.
The Office of Police Complaints released a report that called for an independent investigation into DC police conduct during the clash.
Organizers say 194 people are still each facing 60 years in prison after being mass arrested by police at Trump’s Inauguration and charged with multiple felonies. They are asking people to call on US Attorney Jessie Liu to drop the charges against everyone arrested on January 20, by dialing 202-252-7566 or sending a letter to the Judiciary Center Building, 555 Fourth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20530.
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