Six Inauguration Day protesters are not guilty on riot and property-destruction charges, jurors announced Thursday after a monthlong trial.
The six defendants were the first to stand trial for charges linked to the 2017 Inauguration Day protests in Washington on Jan. 20 where participants railed against Donald Trump. Thursday’s verdict has the potential to influence the fates of the remaining 188 defendants, whom the government plans to try in groups starting in January.
The six defendants acquitted in D.C. Superior Court were Michelle Macchio, 26, Christina Simmons, 20, Jennifer Armento, 38, Alexei Wood, 37, Oliver Harris, 28, and Brittne Lawson, 27. Wood is a freelance photojournalist; Lawson and Macchio are medics.
Outside the courtroom Thursday, defendants and their attorneys celebrated.
“I think it means a lot for free speech,” said Jamie Heine, attorney for Macchio. “We are over-the-moon thrilled with the results.”
A lawyer for another defendant said he's pleased the jury recognized the difference between legal protest and illegal activity. “I think that it shows that when you’re putting a case like this together you have to make tough decisions and draw lines and decide between those who are engaged in constitutionally protected activity and criminal activity,” said Steven McCool, attorney for Oliver Harris.
Despite the acquittals, the government announced it will continue to pursue cases against the remaining 188 charged for their roles in the Inauguration Day protests.
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. 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.
More than 200 people were arrested during inauguration day protests that turned violent. At around 10.30 a.m. on Jan. 20, — more than an hour before Donald Trump would be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States — a group of black-clad protesters moved through Franklin Square in downtown D.C., hurling bricks through windows and fireworks. The alleged crimes were committed over the course of 33 minutes, and played out across more than 16 blocks.
Jurors were asked to consider whether an individual was guilty by association if individuals they were with were committing acts of vandalism. Defense attorneys argued that police made arrests indiscriminately that day, and punished those exercising their right to free speech. Prosecutors said that the defendants were trying to use the First Amendment to exonerate themselves from criminal activity.
“We’ve been here for the last several weeks because these six defendants and these co-conspirators agreed to destroy your city,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Rizwan Qureshi told jurors. “And now they’re hiding behind the First Amendment.”
Police in riot gear ultimately intercepted a group of more than 200 people on the corner of L and 12th Streets, across the road from an elementary school, kettled them (a crowd-control tactic), and then arrested them. Prosecutors later said that the riot had racked up $100,000 in damages.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff described a “sea of black masks” during her opening statement, stressing that many of the rioters had organized according to black bloc tactics, meaning they wore black and covered their faces, as a way of concealing their identities.
The government plans to try the next group of protestors in January, but it’s unclear what Thursday’s acquittal means for subsequent prosecutions.
“My guess is this will give them a reason to consider their strategy going forward,” Heine said.
CORRECTION (Dec. 21): An earlier version of this story said protestors were using flash-bang grenades. Police were reportedly using flash-bang grenades to subdue protestors, who were throwing fireworks.