Federal prosecutors said Thursday they would drop charges against 129 alleged rioters arrested during President Trump's inauguration so they can focus on defendants who did more than simply attend a raucous anti-capitalism march.
Prosecutors failed to win convictions in an initial six-person trial last month after arguing defendants were guilty of felonies because they were present when police surrounded the march.
In a court filing, prosecutors said Thursday they would file motions to dismiss the cases against 129 people to streamline court proceedings against 59 other defendants.
The remaining 59 defendants are accused of "identifiable acts of destruction, violence, or other assaultive conduct," "planning of the violence and destruction," or "conduct that demonstrates a knowing and intentional use of the black-bloc tactic ... to perpetrate, aid or abet violence and destruction."
Among the remaining defendants is journalist Aaron Cantu, who currently works for the Santa Fe Reporter. He was a freelance journalist at the time of his arrest, but had been published by The Intercept, The Nation, Al Jazeera America, and Vice. His precise alleged misconduct is not yet clear.
In the first rioting case last year, prosecutors admitted they had no evidence that six defendants committed vandalism or violence, but said they joined "a sea of black masks" that anonymized people who did, making the march akin to a "getaway car."
The first trial included two women who identified themselves as medics and professional photographer Alexei Wood, who livestreamed the march and said he was working as an independent journalist. Assistant U.S. Attorney Rizwan Qureshi questioned during closing arguments why one of the medics would have gauze and why Wood would know common protest and policing terms.
"What do you need a medic with gauze for? I thought this was a protest,” Qureshi said about one of the medics, licensed nurse Brittne Lawson. “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?” Qureshi said of Wood.
After the acquittals, a juror told the Washington Examiner that "the jury as a whole believes it's a legal act to attend a protest where vandalism occurs."
The man, who asked to be identified only as 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."
The decision to drop charges against most remaining defendants came as a surprise ahead of a scheduled Friday morning conference hearing regarding the second batch of defendants. Prosecutors previously said on Dec. 21, "we look forward to the same rigorous review for each defendant."
Sam Menefee-Libey, a spokesperson for the D.C. Legal Posse, which supports the defendants, said "this is a victory, but the fight is far from over."
"The U.S. Attorney's office continues to zealously prosecute many who were protesting a proto-fascist president and the solidarity among defendants and supporters remain strong. We will keep fighting until everyone is free," Menefee-Libey said.
The U.S. attorney's office in D.C., which uniquely prosecutes both federal and local crimes, is requesting that charges against the majority of demonstrators be dismissed without prejudice, meaning they can be refiled at a later date.
Police arrested more than 230 activists, reporters, and legal observers on Jan. 20, 2017, after a chaotic 30-minute march through downtown D.C. north of the inaugural parade route. Officers used batons, pepper spray, and flash-bang grenades to corral a largely black-clad group.
Prosecutors brought felony rioting and property-destruction charges that could carry 61 years in prison in an attempt to force plea deals to a single misdemeanor punished by a year of unsupervised probation and a fine. Just 20 people pleaded guilty, according to the Thursday filing.