Six men and women facing multiple felony charges nominally related to Inauguration Day protests against President Donald Trump were found not guilty today on all counts.
Each of the six were charged with one count of conspiracy to riot, one count of engaging in a riot, and five counts of property destruction.
After a year of legal wrangling and a lengthy trial with a brief deliberation period, the jury returned 42 not guilty verdicts. During the trial, the government acknowledged that none of the charges against the defendants were directly supported by evidence connecting them to their alleged crimes.
Instead, prosecutors relied upon a guilt-by-association argument due to sporadic incidents of property destruction that occurred on January 20, 2017. On the day in question, windows were smashed, garbage cans were turned on their sides, and one limousine was set on fire as hundreds of black-masked protesters took to the streets of Washington, D.C. amidst a much larger series of anti-Trump demonstrations.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff tried–unsuccessfully–to lump each of the six accused-cum-acquitted individuals in with the scores of black-masked protesters who did take part in property destruction that day. This failed attempt was led by poorly-edited-and-glitch-ridden videos which purported to show each defendant marching alongside a “sea of black masks.”
Those videos were accompanied by PowerPoint presentations and hyperlinks which excruciatingly detailed the events of January 20–including the protest route and slow-motion video highlights.
None of this information was put forward by the government to link the individual charges to specific incidents of criminality. Rather, the government’s position was that willfully marching alongside a large group of people that included window-smashers and rioters was akin to conspiring with the rioters, actually rioting themselves and destroying property.
That argument was summarily rejected today.
In the end, jurors apparently agreed with defense attorney Steve McCool. He said, “The law makes clear that you can be present while others are rioting, and you don’t have to leave. Think about where we would be if they could simply call protesters criminals.”
Defending Rights & Dissent, a non-profit legal advocacy organization which has closely tracked the #J20 prosecutions, issued a press release celebrating the verdict. It reads, in part:
The prosecutors sought to put people in prison for decades whom they freely conceded had not engaged in property destruction. Instead, the six defendants–including protesters, medics, and a journalist–were guilty merely of being present at a protest march the prosecution wrongly deemed a premeditated riot.
Assistant US Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff told the jury during her closings that “reasonable doubt doesn’t mean very much,” but we are elated that the jury decided that civil liberties, due process, and freedom of expression still have meaning in Washington, DC.
[image via screengrab/BBC]