A federal prosecutor said Thursday that jurors must convict six people arrested during President Trump’s inauguration because they “agreed to destroy your city and now they are hiding behind the First Amendment.”
The trial of the first group of inauguration defendants is widely watched, and the verdicts will set the tone for trials of more than 180 other people mass-arrested on Jan. 20.
Jurors are expected to begin deliberations late Thursday or Friday on five felony property-destruction charges and two misdemeanor rioting charges.
During closing arguments Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rizwan Qureshi offered no evidence that the six committed acts of violence or vandalism, or attended planning meetings for an anti-capitalism march that ended in the arrest of about 240 people in downtown Washington.
Instead, Qureshi likened the defendants to robbery get-away drivers, guilty because they helped anonymize others in a crowd.
“That’s exactly what this sea of black was, it was the getaway car,” he said.
Prosecutors showed jurors photos allegedly depicting the defendants during an approximately 30-minute march across 16 city blocks. Some allegedly changed out of black clothes after being surrounded.
If convicted, the initial six face a statutory max of 51 years in prison after refusing plea deals for one year of unsupervised probation and a fine.
Defense attorneys and protest-rights advocates say convictions would amount to collective punishment and would chill future protest activity.
Two defendants, Brittne Lawson and Michelle Macchio, say they acted as medics. Another, professional photographer Alexei Wood, says he is an independent journalist. The others, Oliver Harris, Jennifer Armento and Christina Simmons, say they acted peacefully.
Qureshi said Lawson planned to help injured protesters as a medic, making her a criminal. Photos showed her wearing a white helmet with a red cross, and Qureshi said her first-aid materials included gauze.
“Ms. Lawson was prepared for war and she was going to make it succeed,” Qureshi said, saying she planned “to mend them and get them up on their way.”
“What do you need a medic with gauze for? I thought this was a protest,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with being a medic, but she was aware there was a riot going on.”
Qureshi questioned whether Macchio was operating as a medic at all, saying a red cross on her clothing was not visible in early footage. He said, however, that police found bandanas soaked in vinegar in her bag and communications regarding when to be “marked.”
Video of other people smashing store windows, and descriptions of the fear that instilled in bystanders, featured throughout Qureshi’s closing presentation.
Footage showed Armento and Harris moving with “a sea of black of 500 people, approximately” for the entire march, while Simmons was “late to the party,” allegedly texting a friend that she was trying to catch up to the group, the prosecutor said.
Qureshi offered the most pointed criticism for Wood, who live-streamed the entirety of his conduct to Facebook. Wood, who livestreamed previous protests, had a “fake press badge” under the name John Osborne, he said.
Prosecutors condensed Wood’s footage to show his utterances of “woohoo” during acts of vandalism and when police fired flash-bang grenades at protesters. “That’s not journalism,” Qureshi said. “He’s egging them on. ... I know a lot of journalists who would take issue with his coverage.”
“Don’t let his fake press badge — whether he’s Mr. Wood or Mr. Osborne — fool you,” he added. Wood’s attorney Brett Cohen has stressed the evolving nature of journalism, and press advocates argue it’s lawful for journalists to comment on topics they cover.
Adding to his criticism of Wood, Qureshi questioned why he would know certain terms, such as “kettling,” which refers to a police tactic of surrounding activists. The term kettling often is used by protest-rights advocates who view it as an illegal strategy.
“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.
Attorneys for the defendants say the government’s case rests on nothing more than guilt by association.
Steven McCool, an attorney for Harris, invoked the civil rights movement to jurors, about half of whom are African-American, asking them to consider what criminal liability for others’ behavior during a protest “would do to our ability to effect change.”
McCool quoted President Obama and stressed the fact that the march was opposed to Trump, who won just 4.1 percent of the city’s vote.
McCool said it would be reasonable for defendants, including Harris, to change clothes after police surrounded them, rather than wear fabric coated excessively in pepper-spray. He said about 100 activists who broke through a police line showed consciousness of guilt, but not those who remained behind after being surrounded. He questioned how free people were to leave the larger group as it was corralled by officers.
Some jurors smiled when McCool said people who attend Washington Redskins games aren't responsible for the conduct of rowdy fans just because they wear the same jersey.
The First Amendment, McCool said, “is about our freedom to speak out against Donald Trump and his message of hate." Convictions, he said, would “weaken our ability to associate and speak freely about Donald Trump and others.”
Ahead of closing arguments, Judge Lynn Leibovitz tossed an eighth charge, felony riot incitement, finding insufficient legal grounds for the charge.
Leibovitz and defense attorneys battled over jury instructions involving the First Amendment on Thursday, with the judge saying the amendment protecting speech and assembly isn't a protection for criminal conduct, and that her instructions to jurors would say so.
"Strongly held beliefs, we get to express them all day long. Aiding and abetting the breaking of the Starbucks window? Not allowed," she told defense attorneys, largely denying their recommended rewrite.