A Washington jury acquitted four women and two men of rioting and property destruction charges Thursday, dealing a blow to prosecutors bringing similar cases against nearly 200 others.
The six were mass arrested on Jan. 20 during President Trump's inauguration after police chased a largely black-clad anticapitalism march through the city's downtown. Some members of the crowd smashed store windows and threw items into the street.
The group of defendants volunteered for the first trial date and prosecutors conceded they had no evidence that any of the six committed acts of vandalism.
Instead, prosecutors argued the defendants aided and abetted others who vandalized property by being part of a "sea of black masks."
Two of the six defendants said they operated as medics. Another, professional photographer Alexei Wood, said he was working as an independent journalist. Wood livestreamed video from the march.
Cheers erupted in the hallway after the verdict, and defendants hugged each other and supporters.
A juror smoking a cigarette outside told the medics that he believed they should have been applauded rather than prosecuted for their role in the protest march.
The juror, a middle-aged white man who asked to be identified only as Juror 16, said the jury voted more than once on three defendants, but from the start was overwhelmingly skeptical of the government's claims.
"The jury as a whole believes it's a legal act to attend a protest where vandalism occurs," he said.
Scott Michelman, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington chapter, said in a statement, "We hope that the U.S. Attorney’s Office gets the message and moves quickly to drop all remaining charges against peaceful demonstrators."
Michelman represents some of the people who were arrested after the march, alleging in a lawsuit that police violated protest rights and subjected some people to rectal probes without changing gloves.
The U.S. attorney's office, which acts as both federal and local prosecutor in the nation's capital, indicated it will not back down from putting remaining defendants on trial for the same charges.
"We appreciate the jury’s close examination of the individual conduct and intent of each defendant during this trial and respect its verdict. In the remaining pending cases, we look forward to the same rigorous review for each defendant," the prosecutor's office said.
A local activist who attended the Thursday verdict announcement, David Barrows, was upbeat, however, saying the acquittal means "we're back to where we used to be under Cathy Lanier," the city's former police chief.
"I was shocked they kettled people because we had two big lawsuits in D.C.," said Barrows, referring to a police tactic of surrounding protesters.
"You know what? It needs to happen again. People do pay attention when you lose money. And by God, D.C. needs to lose money until it gets decent police behavior," he said.
Current D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham led the department at the time of the inauguration. Newsham is reviled by civil libertarians for ordering the mass arrest of about 400 people in 2002 during World Bank protests in Pershing Park, charging many for failure to disperse despite no warning being issued. Lawsuits cost the city nearly $17 million according to Jonathan Turley, who represented the final plaintiffs.
Juror 16 said nobody on the jury was openly upset about the two medics being charged, though he disagreed with their prosecution.
One of the medics, licensed nurse Brittne Lawson, wore a white helmet with a red cross. Assistant U.S. Attorney Rizwan Qureshi questioned the appropriateness of her first aid equipment, asking during closing arguments last week, "What do you need a medic with gauze for? I thought this was a protest."
Juror 16 said the jury considered Wood's conduct in separate discussions.
"Some thought that the fact that he was a journalist made him less guilty because he was simply recording. Others thought it made him more guilty because the prosecution alleged he was encouraging the crimes and there was discussions of whether or not he was encouraging them as opposed to simply expressing his enthusiasm," the juror said.
Wood and his attorney Brett Cohen, along with outside press freedom advocates, stressed the evolving nature of journalism and said journalists are allowed to comment on topics they cover. Qureshi told jurors in closing arguments that Wood was not a real journalist and questioned his knowledge of terms such as "black bloc," "unarrest," and "kettling."
“How’s he a journalist and he’s talking about a ‘kettle’? I didn’t know what a kettle was before this case, did you?” the prosecutor said to jurors.
The trial took nearly a month following opening arguments on Nov. 20.
Juror 16 said "it was frustrating because we were shown repeatedly that the defendants were there. There was no significant evidence in my mind other than the attendance of the defendants at the rally."