This was the first trial for the nearly 200 defendants still facing charges in connection with anti-Trump demonstrations on Jan. 20 that turned violent. More trials for other defendants are scheduled for December and throughout 2018. A question going forward will be if the acquittal prompts the government to drop any cases or if prosecutors will press ahead as planned.
The verdict is a victory not only for the six defendants and their lawyers, but for other defense attorneys, anti-Trump activists, and free speech advocates who had criticized the mass arrests and prosecution as examples of government overreach and who worried the case signaled a new era of criminalizing political dissent.
A spokesperson for the US attorney’s office in Washington did not provide immediate comment.
Police arrested 234 people on Jan. 20, charging them with rioting. A grand jury later returned an indictment that included charges for rioting and property destruction.
Over the following months, prosecutors dropped charges against 20 people, and reached plea deals with 20 others. Only one person, Dane Powell, has pleaded guilty to a felony charge; the rest admitted to misdemeanors. Powell is also the only person so far to receive a sentence of jail time — he was sentenced to four months.
The first trial — for Jennifer Armento, of Philadelphia; Michelle Macchio, of Asheville, N.C.; Oliver Harris, of Philadelphia; Brittne Lawson, of Aspinwall, Pa.; Christina Simmons, of Cockeysville, Md.; and Alexei Wood, of San Antonio, Texas — started in mid-November.
The jury began deliberating on Dec. 15. The six defendants faced seven charges: Five felony counts of property destruction, along with two misdemeanor counts of engaging in a riot and conspiracy to riot. 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.
The defendants initially faced an additional felony charge for inciting a riot, but Judge Lynn Leibovitz dismissed that count at the end of the trial. Leibovitz denied a motion from the defense to dismiss the rest of the charges as well, though.
The defendants included people who said they were serving as medics and others who said they were participating in anti-Trump demonstrations but didn’t participate in or support the violence. According to the government, the property destruction was valued at more than $100,000. One defendant, Alexei Wood, said he was at the protests as an independent journalist, and press freedom advocates have raised concerns about his prosecution.
There was no evidence presented at the first trial that any of the six defendants were the ones who broke windows on Jan. 20. The prosecution’s theory was that they were all still criminally responsible because they were there to support the rioters. The defense countered that under the First Amendment, people exercising their free speech rights weren’t required to leave a protest just because someone near them was violent; they argued that the government hadn’t shown evidence that the individual defendants were at the demonstration that day in order to back up the bad actors.
The defendants arrested on Jan. 20 are being tried in small groups, and more trials are scheduled for December and throughout 2018. Defense lawyers, anti-Trump activists, and free speech advocates have been watching the first trial as a test of the prosecution and defense strategies in these cases — and in any future cases involving arrests of protesters — going forward.