A handful of anti-Trump protesters have been found not guilty of all charges by a federal jury in a case that stands to have major implication for First Amendment issues like freedom of speech and a free press. The six defendants cleared Thursday are the first of nearly 200 protesters set to be tried after being arrested during protests held ahead of President Donald Trump's inauguration in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 20.
According to Vice News, police arrested some 230 people in D.C. on the day of Trump's inauguration although some have since plead guilty or had their charges dropped. As of Dec. 13, however, 188 people were believed to still be facing charges. Law enforcement officials have said police began to make arrests after windows were smashed and cars and buildings were vandalized.
Jennifer Armento, Oliver Harris, Brittne Lawson, Michelle Macchio, Christina Simmons, and Alexei Wood were among the hundreds of protesters police kettled and arrested en masse in D.C. just prior to Trump's inauguration. They were the first six of those arrested to head to trial on a slew of charges that include several felony crimes. According to reports, conviction of all charges could have resulted in prison sentences several decades long.
Although a federal judge threw out felony charges of inciting a riot earlier this month citing a severe lack of evidence from government prosecutors, two misdemeanor charges of rioting and five felony charges related to destruction of property were allowed to stand. Prosecutors argued that although there was no evidence to suggest the six defendants — which included a photojournalist and a registered nurse serving as a street medic — smashed windows or spray painted buildings themselves, they were part of a conspiracy to riot and thus responsible for encouraging or inciting rioters to damage property.
"I'll be very clear: we don't believe the evidence is going to show that any of these six individuals personally took that crowbar or that hammer and hit the limo or personally bashed those windows of that Starbucks in," the Daily Beast reported Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff said in the prosecution's opening statement Nov. 20. In essence, prosecutors argued the defendants should be found guilty by association "You don't personally have to be the one that breaks the window to be guilty of rioting, to be guilty of agreeing to riot, because, as you'll see from this case, you'll see from the evidence, this group is a riot."
However, several of the defense attorneys involved in the case argued the charges were a politically-motivated attempt by the Trump administration to crack down on forms of public dissent and free speech. "The United States of America, ladies and gentlemen ― you saw the logo on there, the Justice Department logo ― comes here, I submit to you, seeking to criminalize Mr. Harris's First Amendment rights," the Huffington Post reported Steven McCool, a lawyer for Harris, said in a statement to the jury.
"This is about politics. This is about police and local prosecutors who work for the Department of Justice. And we know who they report to," political blog the Hill reported Sarah Kroff, a defense attorney for a registered nurse who attended the Jan. 20 protest to serve as a street medic, said in her closing statement. "All the government proved was that these individuals showed up and walked as protesters, and that is not a crime."
Ultimately, a federal jury found all six defendants to be not guilty on all charges levied against them. What's more, the verdict issued Thursday could be a sign the more than one hundred other defendants currently awaiting trial for similar charges will also walk free.