WASHINGTON ― Justice Department prosecutors have dropped their case against a woman who laughed at now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearing. Desiree Fairooz was scheduled to face trial for a second time next week, but a DOJ prosecutor entered a nolle prosequi filing in the case on Monday indicating the department is dismissing the charges.
Fairooz, a retired children’s librarian and demonstrator affiliated with the organization Code Pink, let out a laugh during a Senate hearing back in January after Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said Sessions had a “clear and well-documented” record of “treating all Americans equally under the law.” (Sessions had faced strong opposition from civil rights organizations and was rejected as a federal judge in the 1980s over concerns about his past comments on race.)
A rookie Capitol Police officer fresh out of the academy who had never made an arrest before nor covered a congressional hearing decided to take Fairooz into custody. Fairooz loudly objected. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, which prosecutes cases in both federal court and local D.C. Superior Court, pressed two charges against her.
Fairooz was convicted at a jury trial in May, with members of the jury telling HuffPost that they were focused on her conduct as she was being led out of the courtroom after her arrest.
“She did not get convicted for laughing. It was her actions as she was being asked to leave,” the jury foreperson told HuffPost after the verdict.
But a judge tossed out the jury’s conviction in July, finding that prosecutors had improperly argued during the trial that “laughter is enough, standing alone,” to merit a conviction. D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Robert Morin said he found it “disconcerting” that the government had explicitly argued during the trial that laughter in and of itself was enough for a guilty verdict.
After Fairooz rejected a plea deal in which she would have pleaded guilty in exchange for a recommendation of time served, a prosecutor indicated at a hearing in September that the government planned to put her on trial yet again. This week, they reversed course. Fairooz said she was relieved.
“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,” Fairooz told HuffPost in a statement. “As activists, we cannot be deterred from speaking out against injustice, standing up for our constitutional rights and yes, laughing.”
A spokeswoman for the attorney general declined to comment. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia said the office does not typically discuss decisions about charges and had no comment on the decision to dismiss the case against Fairooz.
Taking Fairooz to trial for a second time would have put prosecutors in a bit of an uncomfortable spot. In tossing out the jury’s verdict, Judge Morin made clear that the government could not argue that laughter was enough to support a charge. That essentially meant that the government would be forced to concede as part of the case against Fairooz that Capitol Hill Police Officer Katherine Coronado was wrong to place Fairooz under arrest, but that Fairooz should face charges because she loudly objected to her wrongful arrest and made political statements as she was being escorted from the room.
News of Fairooz’s prosecution went viral after it was first reported by HuffPost. The story sparked jokes by late-night comedians and attracted the attention of Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who believed there were substantial questions about the application of the law in her case.
Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter, covering criminal justice, federal law enforcement and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Signal at 202-527-9261.