Jury finds first defendants to stand trial for inauguration protests innocent of all charges
The first six of 193 people charged with rioting and conspiracy charges after being arrested in connection with protests on Inauguration Day were found not guilty.
The case has been seen as a test of the First Amendment under the Trump administration. Because the arrests occurred in Washington, DC, the crimes are prosecuted by US attorneys who ultimately answer to Jeff Sessions.
Lead prosecutor Jennifer Kerkhoff has argued, on a novel legal theory, that anyone who was wearing black and was in the vicinity of 12th and L streets, where police used pepper spray, grenades, and batons to cordon off more than 200 people in a kettle, is guilty of conspiring to riot and of any property damage associated with the riot. Among those kettled are journalists who were covering the protest, legal observers, and medics.
Of the six defendants in the first group to stand trial, one, Alexei Wood, is a journalist who was livestreaming the protest, and two medics, one a registered nurse, who were there to offer medical services.
“She was aiding and abetting this riot. That was her role,” said Assistant US Attorney Rizwan Qureshi in court. “As a provider of medical services, she was a co-conspirator. She aided and abetted this group. She wasn’t prepared for a march or a protest. She was prepared for war.”
At the close of this trial, when Kerkhoff told the jury that the standard of ascertaining guilt “beyond reasonable doubt” in a case “doesn’t mean a whole lot,” Judge Lynn Leibovitz assured the jurors: “I’m sure she didn’t mean to say what she just said.”
Detective Greggory Pemberton has spent an entire year investigating the case, which has relied on evidence from unreliable far-right sources such as Project Veritas, which recently tried to trick the Washington Post and discredit the women accusing former Alabama Senatorial candidate Roy Moore.
“The trial also underscored the extent to which the Trump administration was actively working with far-right and neo-fascist political groups like Project Veritas, Oath Keepers, Media Research Center and Rebel Media to criminalize and punish anti-fascist and anti-Trump activists,” the advocacy group Defend J20 said in a statement. “Despite what could be considered collusion with these groups, and the government’s attempt to criminalize ‘anti-establishment’ views, the jury roundly rejected those efforts.”
In a recent motion filed on behalf of defendants in the next round of trials, it was alleged that Pemberton gave false testimony to the grand jury in order to bring charges, claiming that everyone who was arrested was present for the entire march and the destruction of property, which included broken windows at several chain businesses heavily associated with capitalism, such as Bank of America and Starbucks.
One of the defendants was not even at the protest on Inauguration Day but is being charged on the basis of a podcast talking about the protest.
The judge had already dismissed the felony inciting a riot charge against all of the defendants.
In a statement, the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia indicated that it would continue to prosecute the remaining 187 defendants in the case.
“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,” the statement reads. “This destruction impacted many who live and work in the District of Columbia, and created a danger for all who were nearby. 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.”