More than two years after the mass arrest of protesters at President Donald Trump’s inauguration, two federal prosecutors walked into a District of Columbia courtroom earlier this month in a little-noticed hearing and told a judge that their investigation had ended and they would no longer pursue any of the cases.
The cases began with one of the most sweeping arrest actions ever in the nation’s capital. Authorities said rioters caused about $100,000 in property damage across 16 blocks downtown. The government said the group used “black bloc” tactics, dressing in dark colors and wearing masks, scarves or goggles to blend in with similarly dressed demonstrators who used rocks and crowbars to shatter windows of businesses and vehicles.
In all, 234 people were arrested and charged in the Inauguration Day rioting. Of them, 21 defendants pleaded guilty before trial – the only convictions arising from the arrests. A few defendants went to trial, which resulted in acquittals or hung juries. Other cases were dropped gradually.
Defense attorneys argued from the start that prosectors were overreaching. They said their clients were lawfully protesting and being blamed for the actions of a small group of vandals.
The U.S. attorney’s office put one of its most aggressive prosecutors in charge, a veteran who typically handled homicide cases.
But the challenges for the prosecution soon became clear as the defendants were split into groups of six for trial. In two trials, juries agreed with the defense attorneys and the government didn’t secure convictions. Jurors would later say they found that the defendants had participated in the protests, but they saw no evidence that those defendants were involved in the vandalism.
Within months, the cases unraveled further and federal prosecutors began dismissing them. By last summer, charges against the remaining defendants were dropped.
But defense attorneys continued to push to have the U.S. attorney’s office go further and dismiss the cases with prejudice, a legal distinction that means the government would not be able to refile charges against their clients.
During a March 15 hearing in front of Judge Robert Morin, the chief judge of D.C. Superior Court, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Goodhand, who was investigating the cases, took that step. Goodhand asked that the 188 cases not yet adjudicated be dismissed.
Morin agreed. The judge also asked Goodhand’s office to review the cases to see which defendants might qualify to have their arrest records sealed.
A spokesman for Jessie K. Liu, the U.S. attorney for the District, declined to comment on the protest cases, which were brought under her predecessor. Liu is now under consideration by Trump to become the Justice Department’s No. 3 official.
Austin noted the time spent on the case by defense attorneys, many of whom, like himself, were working pro bono or court appointed, as well as prosecution staff and judges. He said that effort could have been better directed to other cases.
“This was an incredibly reckless prosecution, completely unnecessary from the get-go, that was only aimed at chilling people’s free speech,” said Austin, a former prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office.
Beale, 26 and at the center of the hearing this month, expressed relief at the outcome but said the two years have taken a toll. The community college student in Pasadena, California, cited the financial hardship of flying to Washington for court hearings. She also said her doctor diagnosed her with an anxiety disorder, which she said was caused by her arrest and prosecution.
“It’s been unbelievable just how big these charges were. It’s hard to get my mind around,” Beale said. “But after it went on for so long, it became something we always thought about. It’s really great news, but just hard to believe this stuff even happened to begin with.”
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Keith L. Alexander