On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice ended its attempt to prosecute a liberal activist, in a hyper-controversial case that's drawn a lot of scrutiny and criticism. Specifically, the DOJ has dropped its charges against Desiree Fairooz, the woman who audibly laughed at Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearings back in January.
Fairooz, 61, was removed from the hearing after audibly laughing when Republican senator Richard Shelby lauded Sessions' record on civil rights, describing the then-Alabama senator as having a record of "treating all Americans equally under the law." Sessions' record on civil rights was one of the foremost areas of scrutiny he faced during his hearings, with his bid for a federal judgeship in 1983 derailed by allegations of racism, including a letter written by Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King. The letter accused Sessions of launching politically motivates voter fraud prosecutions against black Alabamans; Sessions has repeatedly denied accusations of racism.
After laughing out loud, Fairooz was taken into custody by a rookie Capitol Police officer, and she loudly protested her removal from the hearing as it happened. It was this subsequent interruption that reportedly formed the basis of her conviction for "disorderly or disruptive conduct." That decision was thrown out by a judge in July, however, on the grounds that the government had argued at trial that Fairooz's laughter alone was sufficient cause to convict.
Now, with the charges being dropped, Fairooz no longer has to spend any of her time and energy worrying about a Justice Department prosecution. From the sounds of things, she's distinctly relieved that all this is over ― she told HuffPost in a statement on Tuesday that she's happy that she won't have to pay any legal consequences for her "chortle."
The last 10 months of my life have been somewhat stressful facing trial and the possibility of jail time and a criminal conviction for a chortle so I am greatly relieved that I will not stand trial again. As activists, we cannot be deterred from speaking out against injustice, standing up for our constitutional rights and yes, laughing.
The effort to prosecute Fairooz drew an immense amount of negative coverage, given the relatively mild nature of her interruption, and the potential punishment associated with the charges against her. After her conviction was overturned in July, it appeared that the Justice Department was going to schedule a new trial and fight for yet another conviction. But between then and now, something clearly changed. In a notice filed just six days before a new trial was meant to begin, the government dropped its case.
As Ryan J. Reilly reported for HuffPost on Tuesday, part of the reason the government may have dropped the case is the sticky situation created by the previous judge's ruling that Fairooz's laughter itself was insufficient to justify a charge. Because of that, the prosecution would've effectively had to admit in a new trial that Officer Katherine Coronado, who initially arrested Fairooz, had been wrong to do so. As such, or perhaps for other reasons not evidently clear to the public ― the case did draw a lot of negative publicity, after all ― they decided to bring the entire affair to an end.
Had Fairooz's conviction been upheld, she could've faced up to a year in jail, an incredibly heavy price to pay for a spontaneous bit of laughter. It remains to be seen whether the Sessions DOJ will take a more aggressive position against protesters or activists than its predecessor did, but in this case at least, its efforts have been thwarted.