J20 trials: Charges dropped for more anti-Trump defendants

Decision comes after prosecution faces several setbacks in trials stemming from protest on Trump's Inauguration Day.

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    Police fire pepper spray on protesters during a demonstration after the inauguration of President Donald Trump [File: John Minchillo/AP Photo]
    Police fire pepper spray on protesters during a demonstration after the inauguration of President Donald Trump [File: John Minchillo/AP Photo]

    After an anti-fascist and anti-capitalist march against US President Donald Trump's inauguration descended into mayhem, there were no allegations or evidence suggesting that graphic designer and activist Dylan Petrohilos was present.

    Yet, on April 3, 2017, more than two months after the Inauguration Day rally, police arrived at his house, smashed through the door and burst in with guns raised.

    They rummaged through his belongings, seizing computers, mobile phones and a black anti-fascist flag from his lawn.

    "One of the first things they took was an anti-fascist flag," he recalled, speaking to Al Jazeera by telephone.

    At the Inauguration Day demonstration, more than 230 people were arrested, and most were given a rioting charge.

    In late April 2017, a court returned a superseding indictment, adding several new charges related to rioting and property damage.

    Petrohilos was among those charged. 

    He spent more than 13 months living in perpetual fear of being thrown behind bars for decades owing to those charges. "I had to come to terms with a lot of things," he said.

    On Thursday, the US Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia (USAO-DC) moved to dismiss all charges against a six-person group of defendants - among them Petrohilos - slated to go on trial on June 4.

    Three members of another group, whose trial started on May 29, had their conspiracy to riot felony charges dropped and will go to trial for a handful of misdemeanours. Additionally, all charges were dismissed for one individual in the May 29 trial group.

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    Although the weight on his shoulders exacted a toll on his personal life, Petrohilos said he was lucky "to have support on a local, national and international" level.

    "We were lucky to have the solidarity of the community behind us, and now we can all see that this is what [the USAO-DC] does all the time," the 29-year-old said.

    The case of the Inauguration Day defendants - collectively deemed the J20 defendants - has witnessed a series of dramatic twists and turns throughout the last year, drawing widespread condemnation from rights groups and civil liberties watchdogs.

    Hundreds arrested

    During Trump's inauguration, hundreds of thousands of people trekked from across the US to demonstrate in the capital.

    When the anti-fascist and anti-capitalist bloc rally advanced through the city, a small number of demonstrators engaged in property damage.

    The police met the demonstrators with a heavy-handed response, kettling more than 230 people, firing tear gas, detaining them for hours and eventually carting them off.

    Among those detained were demonstrators, journalists, medics, legal observers, bystanders and others.

    Rights groups and critics roundly decried the charges, deeming them part of a broader pattern of cracking down on freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by the First Amendment of US Constitution.

    After the superseding indictment was returned, defendants effectively faced life behind bars. Some reached plea deals with the USAO-DC in exchange for significantly lesser sentences, while others had their charges dropped altogether.

    But the vast majority of the defendants stood together and refused to negotiate plea deals that could co-defendants at risk.

    Arguing that the USAO-DC attempted to intimidate defendants into reaching a plea deal, Petrohilos said: "Instead, you had people sticking together and showing collective solidarity, with only a handful of people reaching plea agreements."

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    The first batch of six defendants, which included an independent photojournalist, went to trial late last year, and the prosecution suffered a defeat when a jury found them not guilty on all counts in December.

    The following month, charges were dismissed for 129 defendants, leaving 59 people facing an assortment of felonies and misdemeanours.

    'Undeniable prosecutorial misconduct'

    Thursday's developments came a week after the prosecution suffered a setback.

    On May 23, Judge Robert Morin agreed with the defence's claim that the USAO-DC had effectively withheld evidence and violated the Brady rule, which lays out the obligations of the state regarding potentially exculpatory evidence.

    Morin's decision stemmed from the prosecution's entry of an edited video, provided by a far-right nonprofit group, into evidence.

    Project Veritas, the controversial group that provided the footage, targets leftists, anti-fascists and media outlets in investigative sting operations.

    During Thursday's hearings to consider sanctioning the prosecution, it emerged that the prosecution had hidden from the defence the existence of 69 videos provided by Project Veritas.

    Contacted by Al Jazeera, the USAO-DC declined to comment.

    In an email statement provided to Al Jazeera, the American Civil Liberties Union - DC (ACLU-DC), argued that USAO-DC's "undeniable prosecutorial misconduct is a serious governmental abuse of power".

    "From the initial overcharging decisions to these latest revelations about the government's misleading editing of the Project Veritas video, the US Attorney's office has repeatedly abused its power in a quest to lock people up for exercising their First Amendment rights on Inauguration Day," Scott Michelman, senior staff lawyer at ACLU-DC, said in that statement.

    For his part, Petrohilos hopes the repeated setbacks and embarrassments for the USAO-DC will "send a message to other prosecutors that the days of doing whatever they want to people of colour and political dissidents are over".

    Fates unclear

    After Thursday's dismissals, dozens are still facing felony charges, and four are currently waiting for a jury to reach a verdict. Their fates remain unclear.

    Sam Menefee-Libey of DC Legal Posse, an activist group that supports the Inauguration Day defendants, argued that the Brady violations and overreach are part of the prosecution's broader pattern of "belligerent" behaviour throughout the ordeal.

    "The finding of a Brady violation is a big deal, it's a serious constitutional violation," he told Al Jazeera.

    "It's really important that we keep fighting this ... We're going to keep fighting until everyone's charges are dropped," Menefee-Libey added.

    "It's also important to figure out how widespread this conduct is in the US Attorney's office ... we want to make sure there are consequences for the DA and the Metropolitan Police Department."

    Although he is no longer facing charges, Petrohilos called on people to "stand in solidarity" with the remaining defendants.

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    "At the end of the day, 18 months have passed with no guilty verdicts by a jury ... and now, more than 130 people have seen their charges dismissed," he concluded.

    "We need to act in solidarity with them until all the charges are dropped ... and continue to act as a movement for everyone in prison until we can build a world without them."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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