Anti-Trump protesters facing decades in jail cleared

First 'J20' case ends with six defendants exonerated on all charges, but advocates caution many trials remain.

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    Police fire pepper spray on protesters at a demonstration against the inauguration of President Donald Trump [John Minchillo/AP Photo]
    Police fire pepper spray on protesters at a demonstration against the inauguration of President Donald Trump [John Minchillo/AP Photo]

    A US jury exonerated six people who faced decades in prison for allegedly destroying property in Washington, DC on January 20 - the day President Donald Trump was inaugurated.

    A variety of felony and misdemeanour charges could have resulted in 60 years in jail for each defendant, but a jury on Thursday cleared them of all counts.

    An anti-Trump demonstration on January 20 was organised by an umbrella group named "Disrupt J20," which included anti-capitalists, ant-fascists, and activists from other ideological backgrounds.

    Many observers saw the trial and possible decades-long sentences as a form of intimidation and criminalisation of free speech and freedom of assembly in the United States.

    "Everyone is relieved by the initial verdict," Sam Menefee-Libey of the DC Legal Posse, a group that provides support for the J20 defendants, told Al Jazeera shortly after the universal acquittal was delivered. 

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    Menefee-Libey credited the "solidarity" and "bravery" of the community, as well as collective legal defence, for the acquittals.

    Jude Ortiz, chair of the National Lawyers' Guild Mass Defense Committee and part of the defence team, told Al Jazeera he had "no idea ... no best guess" as to what would happen with the verdict.

    As he heard each "not guilty" verdict in the courtroom, it was an increasing "rush", Ortiz said. 

    Freedom of assembly

    The US Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia highlighted a "riot" that "damaged or destroyed" public and private property on January 20.  

    "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," the office said in a statement issued after the ruling. 

    Alexei Wood, a 37-year-old photographer and videographer whose livestream of the demonstration showed he did not participate in any property destruction, was among those charged. 

    "Today's verdict reaffirms two central constitutional principles of our democracy: first, that dissent is not a crime and second, that our justice system does not permit guilt by association," Scott Michelman, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, DC, said in a statement delivered to Al Jazeera.

    Michelman added: "We hope today's verdict begins the important work of teaching police and prosecutors to respect the line between lawbreaking and constitutionally protected protest." 

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    There were also questions about the evidence used in an attempt to convict the defendants. 

    Most protesters were clad in all black with their faces covered. So screen captures and photos taken by far-right sources, as well as police body-worn cameras, were used to show the location of certain demonstrators throughout the demonstration.

    The US Justice Department's prosecution team, headed by lawyer Jennifer Kerkhoff, used video from far-right sources such as Project Veritas - a nonprofit that performs "sting operations" on news media in attempts to uncover anti-Trump bias - and Lauren Southern, a right-wing Canadian internet personality, as evidence. 

    "The jury didn't buy any of it," Ortiz said. While he didn't know if this will influence future attempts to criminalise protests, he said the jury clearly didn't think the prosecution's case was strong this time. 

    "They definitely did not endorse the clear lack of evidence by giving convictions," Ortiz concluded.   

    The jury began deliberations on December 15. These were the first six defendants out of nearly 200 people who will face trial for alleged crimes related to Trump's January inauguration protest. 

    Thursday's verdict strengthened the J20 support network "to keep fighting until everyone is free", Menefee-Libey said. 

     


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