US Constitution, First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; OR THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE PEACEABLY TO ASSEMBLE, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Numerous actions of the administration of the current occupier of the Oval Office have been undertaken for the sole purpose of stifling free speech – all speech, if possible, that is critical of 45, whether it is from the press, from other politicians, from peaceful protestors, or from any other source. The most noteworthy and consistent manifestation has been 45’s personal and constant assault on the free press, with his chants of “fake news” to each and every media outlet that dares tell the truth about him, his administration, his personal activities and transgressions, his policies and his actions. But slightly less visible and
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lurking just behind all this has been the attempted legal assault against the first amendment rights of individuals to engage in simple peaceful protest.
This past week, however, much of this is coming to light as the first of the large number of persons arrested almost a full year ago at the inauguration are finally getting their day in court, following the egregious actions of the Department of Justice in filing felony charges against people who did no more than march in protest on that fateful day last January.
Of the hundreds of people who were arrested that day, slightly over 200 people had charges filed against them, charges that carry with them penalties of up to ten years in prison, and now the first six have seen their charges adjudicated in court, and all six have been found NOT guilty.
Yes, there was some violence on that day early this year, with some rocks being thrown, with some vandalism having occurred, and with some fires being set. But these people, arrested, charged, and now including some who were exonerated were responsible for none of those actions and activities. They were “guilty” of nothing more than being part of the overall protests, and in fact, many admittedly were arrested and taken into custody BEFORE the actual violent activities occurred.
This first group of six protestors – Jennifer Armento (38), Michelle Macchio (26), Oliver Harris (28), Brittne Lawson (27), Christina Simmons (20) and Alexei Wood (27) – each faced six felony charges of inciting or urging to riot and destruction of property, plus two additional misdemeanor charges of rioting.
According to one the the prosecutors, US Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff, the basis of the alleged crimes was the fact that these defendants chose to engage in protest, acting lawfully themselves, and did not abandon their beliefs and leave the protest at some
mysterious point where they should have known that there could be violence. According to Kerkhoff, “You do not personally have to break the window to be guilty of rioting” … but that they actively participated by staying with the group.
This was the prosecution’s argument even though it was admitted that none of the six themselves engaged in ANY acts that caused property damage or that even encouraged rioting, and that District of Columbia Metropolitan Police had not given ANY order to disperse, but rather chose to begin arresting people. Evidence was even admitted that one of the police commanders said over police radio at the beginning of the protest that the demonstrators were “anarchists”.
Defense lawyers were vehement in their collective position that their clients were engaging in protected speech and that they were exercising fundamental rights of free speech and free association.
The jury trial of these first six defendants lasted more than four weeks. In closing arguments, Assistant US Attorney Rizwan Qureshi analogized the defendants to the getaway driver for bank robbers, arguing they while they didn’t personally take the money, they were just as guilty as those who did take the money, here, engaging in violent activities.
District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz, a former hard line prosecutor specializing in homicide cases and who carries with her a reputation as a law and order pro prosecution jurist, easily found some of these arguments specious and ruling that the government failed to produce sufficient evidence in their support, dismissed the most serious charges of inciting a riot against all six of the defendants before the case was submitted to the jury.
In her closing argument, defense attorney Sara Kropf stated the following:
“This is about politics. This is about police and local prosecutors who work for the Department of Justice. And we know who they report to,” she said, referring to President Trump.
“All the government proved was that these individuals showed up and walked as protesters,” she said. “And that is not a crime.”
Unfortunately, many of the protestors, about 20 according to prosecutors, had earlier been coerced into accepting guilty pleas and paying fines, to remove 45’s Justice Department’s threats of felony prosecutions and long jail sentences for daring to exercise the right of free speech, free speech critical of 45.
But even more despicable is the fact that there remain 166 people still charged with these
alleged “crimes” and prosecutors have stated that they intend to proceed as planned and go to trial in each of these remaining cases. This clearly substantiates claims made by various defense counsel that the purpose of these prosecution is clearly to “crack down on anti-trump speech” and that the cases are being directly driven by Attorney General Jeff Sessions
In this case, the jury literally found that the six charged defendants engaged in nothing more than having “walked in a protest”. Defense attorney Betty Ballester said after the trial that the jury has spoken. The US Department of Justice and prosecutors from the US Attorney’s office need to listen.