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Free speech or destruction: First Trump inauguration protesters go on trial

People gather in front of a line of police officers

On Monday, six people became the first to stand trial in connection with violent demonstrations that took place in Washington, D.C., the day President Trump was inaugurated.

Defense attorneys claim their clients are innocent and abstained from violence while prosecutors say by not leaving, the protesters participated in the violence. "They helped this path of destruction and it’s for those choices that they made that they need to be held accountable," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff.

Protesters did more than $100,000 in damage to the nation’s capitol on Jan. 20 by setting fire to trash cans, smashing store windows and throwing bricks and rocks at police officers.

A federal grand jury charged more than 200 people with multiple felonies each, charges some claim stifle free speech.

The protesters — Jennifer Armento, 38; Michelle Macchio, 26; Oliver Harris, 28; Brittne Lawson, 27; Christina Simmons, 20; and Alexei Wood, 27 — appeared in court accompanied by their attorneys. Each face six felony charges — a count of inciting or urging to riot and five counts of destruction of property — plus two misdemeanor rioting charges. The case is being tried in D.C. Superior Court before Judge Lynn Leibovitz.

Read more: For almost 200 Inauguration Day protesters, legal battle is only beginning

The defendants could face decades in prison. Dozens of protesters previously had their charges dropped or pleaded to lesser charges. The group is the first to challenge federal prosecutors by taking their cases to trial. The outcome of the cases is sure to set a tone for the rest of the trials, which extend well into 2018 and include nearly 190 remaining defendants, who will be tried in groups.

The courtroom was packed with onlookers diligently taking notes. Dozens others listened to the proceedings in another courtroom

During opening arguments, lawyers from each side presented differing perspectives of the violence that day.

Attorneys for the protesters argued their clients committed no violence and were on trial because D.C. police officers failed to differentiate between the true lawbreakers and those simply expressing their first amendment right to protest the new president.

As for the prosecution, Kerkhoff admitted evidence during trial likely wouldn’t show any of the six breaking windows or doing damage individually. But, she said, that doesn’t mean they’re not guilty.

“The law says they didn’t have to do that,” Kerkhoff said. “You don’t personally have to break the window to be guilty of rioting.”

She walked the 12-person jury through the dramatics of the day, carefully describing the destruction done along the protesters’ 16-block journey through downtown D.C. She based her argument on the fact the protesters could have left at any point.

“Each definitely had countless opportunities to walk away,” she said. “Again and again they made a choice to stay, to be a part of this, to move with the group. And when they did that, they actively participated.”

All six defense attorneys said their clients didn’t do any damage or encourage any rioting on Jan. 20. However, some said D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), which clashed with protesters that day and made the arrests, didn’t follow their own procedures when arresting protesters.

Steven McCool, who represents Harris, said police failed to give an official order to disperse and had decided to group and arrest the protesters long before serious damage was done.

"These folks were engaged in protected speech. Others in the sea of these people vandalized property. They vandalized it on their own," he said. “The MPD does not have the authority to arrest everyone in hopes that they arrest the person with the brick."

Brett Cohen claims his client, Alexei Wood, a professional photographer, cast his experience live on Facebook. Kerkhoff said Wood cheers and celebrates the destruction. "Disagreeable is not illegal," he told the jury.

Carrie Weletz, Armento’s attorney, also argued the police didn’t follow their own handbook. “This case is fundamentally about a person’s right to associate and a person’s right to speak their mind,” she said.

: CNN

 

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