All six defendants in a crucial trial involving demonstrators arrested during President Donald Trump’s inauguration were found not guilty of all charges on Thursday.
The trial of the six defendants ― Jennifer Armento, Oliver Harris, Brittne Lawson, Michelle Macchio, Christina Simmons and Alexei Wood ― began in mid-November. It raised major First Amendment issues and was seen as a bellwether that could determine whether the government will proceed with the prosecutions of many of the nearly 200 other defendants who have trials scheduled throughout the next year.
Despite Thursday’s verdict, Justice Department prosecutors appeared ready to take all of the remaining defendants to trial.
“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,” the office said in a statement. “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,” the statement continued. “In the remaining pending cases, we look forward to the same rigorous review for each defendant.”
The defendants in the case decided Thursday were in a large group that police encircled (or “kettled”) and arrested en masse in downtown D.C. on Jan. 20, just before Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. Authorities acted after some people in D.C. smashed windows and spray-painted cars and buildings in the city that day.
The first six to go on trial include a photographer who had solicited a news outlet for inauguration-related work and two women who acted as “street medics” that day and were carrying medical supplies.
Justice Department prosecutors representing the U.S. government conceded at the beginning of the trial that there was no evidence any of the six defendants engaged in any property destruction or violence on Jan. 20. But they alleged the defendants were part of a rioting conspiracy and should be held responsible for more than $100,000 worth of property damage sustained that day. Jurors heard from several employees and business owners who had their windows smashed, as well as police officers who responded to the chaotic scene as it unfolded over roughly 33 minutes.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz, a former homicide prosecutor who has generally issued rulings favorable to the prosecution, issued a judgment of acquittal on a felony count of inciting a riot, ruling that no reasonable juror could have found any of the defendants guilty of that charge based on the evidence presented by the government. But she allowed the rest of the charges ― two misdemeanor rioting charges and five felonies in connection with property destruction ― to go to the jury.
Some of the defense attorneys have portrayed the case as the Trump administration’s attempt to crack down on anti-Trump speech, pointing out to jurors that the attorneys prosecuting the case work for the Justice Department. The Justice Department has 94 U.S. attorney’s offices throughout the country, but the District of Columbia office is unique in that it handles both federal and local crimes, which would normally be handled by local prosecutors.
“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,” argued Steven McCool, a former federal prosecutor who is defending Harris, one of the six people on trial in the case.
Sara Kropf, an attorney representing Lawson — a cancer nurse who had to quit her job due to the trial — also implied that the case was being driven by top Justice Department leaders like Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“That’s who they are. Not our local prosecutors. The federal government. We know who they report to,” Kropf said. “This is about politics.”
Attorneys also suggested the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia is only pursuing the case to protect the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, which appears to have violated D.C. regulations laying out how law enforcement is supposed to handle demonstrations in the nation’s capital. Video showed officers shooting pepper spray with abandon and using questionable force against individuals who didn’t appear to pose any threat.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff, who led the prosecution, told jurors that the defendants were privileged and entitled for suggesting that D.C. police follow their rules and issue a dispersal order before conducting a mass arrest.
Defense attorneys also zeroed in on the biases of Metropolitan Police Department Detective Gregg Pemberton, who has been investigating the inauguration unrest every working day since Jan. 20. Pemberton had sent anti-activist tweets and written disparagingly about Black Lives Matter.
This story has been updated to include the statement from the U.S. attorney’s office.
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.