Bathroom graffiti inspires juror in J20 trial to “Google jury nullification.”

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Katie Aguilera

On Thursday, May 31, 2018, a juror sent a note to Judge Kimberley Knowles in a Washington D.C. superior court room informing Knowles that she had googled jury nullification after seeing the words “Google jury nullification” written in a bathroom stall at the courthouse.  She googled it, read about it, told the other jurors about it and then informed the judge of her actions.

This trial is the second of many planned for protesters arrested on January 20, 2017 during protests in Washington D.C. in which police officers were injured, windows were broken, and a limousine was destroyed.  Four defendants who allegedly participated in property damage that occurred during the Inauguration Day protests are currently on trial.  They are Michael Basillas, Seth Cadman, Anthony Felice, and Cathseigh Webber.

Six defendants faced felony charges in November 2017 but the jury in that trial acquitted them of all charges December 21, 2017.  In that trial, the prosecution made no effort to prove that the six defendants were guilty of any of the property damage, stating instead that “though there is no evidence the defendants caused any of the damage directly, the government considers the entire group of protesters to be responsible.”

The admission by the juror of googling jury nullification in this current trial comes after several major developments involving all the related cases, which are frequently referred to as the J20 cases.  On May 23, 2018, Chief Judge Robert Morin ruled “that the US Attorney had illegally withheld evidence from protester defendants.”  In what constitutes a Brady violation, the judge agreed with the defense that the prosecution had withheld potentially exculpatory evidence, specifically the fact that a highly questionable video created by Project Veritas and used as evidence against all the accused protesters was heavily edited.

The prosecution had previously declared that there was only very limited editing to hide the identity of the person filming the video and the identity of an undercover officer attending the meeting the video filmed.  However, it was later revealed that there was significant editing to the video, with several important parts having been removed.

According to a motion for sanctions and dismissal filed by the defense in a related trial scheduled to begin June 4, 2018, a portion of video that was edited out actually showed an undercover officer stating, “I was talking with one of the organizers from the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] and I don’t think they know anything about any of the upper echelon stuff.”  The defense argues the following in that motion:

“This is exculpatory evidence to the defense. The government plans to argue that Mr. Petrohilos and everyone else at that meeting were intending to plan a violent protest. What better exculpatory evidence for the Defense than the words from the person sent to capture a nefarious meeting stating right after the meeting, ‘I don’t think they know anything’. This evidence is clearly exculpatory and but for the Court compelling its production, Defense would have never received it.”

Such Brady violations could arguably be considered cause for a mistrial for these cases but Judge Knowles has opted not to do so in this trial.  Numerous other cases have been dismissed and felony charges against some defendants have been dropped after Judge Morin’s ruling.

On May 31, 2018, Chief Judge Morin also ruled “that the US Attorney had misled him by not admitting the existence of 69 additional pieces of evidence provided by the far-right “entrapment” group Project Veritas” according to Unicorn Riot, an independent website that has covered these cases extensively.

And then came the admission of the bathroom graffiti inspired google search the day before the case went into jury deliberation.  Neither the defense or the prosecution protested this development and the judge proceeded with the scheduled deliberation.  Jury deliberation is expected to continue on Monday, June 4, 2018.

These trials present an interesting opportunity to exercise the right of jury nullification.  As Ryan J. Reilly, Huffington Post senior justice reporter, tweeted on May 31, 2018: “Jury nullification would be particularly powerful in this trial, as government alleges that three of the defendants engaged in some form of destruction. Unlike first case, jurors might want to convict on misdemeanors but not make them felons or expose them to lengthy sentences.”

This is a good reminder that jury nullification has been used in the past to acquit people charged for protest and dissent.  I wrote back in 2016 that “in today’s highly charged climate of political activism against war, police brutality, etcetera, combined with the prevalence of mandatory minimum sentences and increasingly over-reaching laws, the importance of knowing and understanding the right of US jurors to practice jury nullification cannot be understated.  It is critical that US citizens remember that the United States was founded on the principle of government that serves the people. A jury of peers, fully apprised of their rights and responsibilities as jurors, is one of the greatest protections of that principle.”

The importance of these cases should not be ignored.  As I wrote on December 8, 2017, regarding the first J20 trial, “this idea of collective liability is what makes this trial so important, and all Americans should be paying attention.  The mere act of charging so many, with the possibility of such severe punishment, threatens to stifle legitimate protest and first amendment activity.  If exercising one’s right to peacefully protest comes with the risk of felony charges for the criminal behavior of others, many will opt to stay home.”

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

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Protest On Trial: Six defendants arrested during Disrupt J20 protests on Inauguration Day fighting felony charges in court

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Katie Aguilera

On November 20, 2017, trial began in Washington DC superior court for six defendants arrested during the protests that took place on Inauguration Day.  More than 200 people were arrested that day after a small number of protesters clashed with police, smashed windows, and committed other acts of property destruction.  Six police were injured, and an estimated $100,000.00 in damage resulted from the violence.

The six now on trial are the first of over 200 arrested on Inauguration day who have all been charged with felonies.  Those charges include conspiracy to riot, engaging in a riot, inciting a riot, and multiple property damage charges, and come with a maximum ten-year prison sentence for each count.  Some have already pleaded guilty to lesser charges and some have had the charges dropped.  But nearly 200 people still face felony convictions, and possible 60-year sentences, if found guilty.

The prosecution in this first trial has made it clear they don’t intend to prove that any of the six defendants personally caused any property damage or injury, but rather that all who face charges are guilty because they are all collectively responsible for the actions of a few.  US Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff said in her opening statement, “though there is no evidence the defendants caused any of the damage directly, the government considers the entire group of protesters to be responsible.”

 “The prosecution is pursuing a somewhat unusual strategy: Rather than trying to prove that any of individual defendant was personally guilty of destruction, prosecutors are arguing that all demonstrators present that day were aware and supportive of the violent intentions of the others.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff, in her comments, has repeatedly referred to the ‘black bloc tactics’ of the protesters as part of a message that everyone participating in the protest came with either the intention to commit violence or the knowledge that violence was part of the plan.”

Ashraf Khalil, Associated Press November 21, 2017

The government is arguing that all of the defendants conspired to cause the violence and rioting, regardless of whether they participated in any advance planning.  They argue that the defendants intended for the property destruction and violence to occur even if they didn’t cause damage themselves.  They argue that by continuing to move together down the street as some in their midst engaged in criminal behavior, everyone arrested became responsible for the resulting damage.

This idea of collective liability is what makes this trial so important, and all Americans should be paying attention.  The mere act of charging so many, with the possibility of such severe punishment, threatens to stifle legitimate protest and first amendment activity.  If exercising one’s right to peacefully protest comes with the risk of felony charges for the criminal behavior of others, many will opt to stay home.  If these six are convicted, it sets a very dangerous precedent.

Kris Hermes, an organizer of a support group for the defendants called Defend J20, is quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “what the government is saying to us is, dissent is not an acceptable form of expression in this country, and if you choose to go out on the street and express yourself, then you risk being arrested and seriously prosecuted.”

Eoin Higgins wrote in an October 25, 2017 article for the Intercept, “by charging everyone together with conspiracy counts, the government seems intent on making an example of the J20 protesters.”  He also writes, “that the government’s case does not differentiate between actors and bystanders could be an indication of future clampdowns on protest.”

There are other very important aspects of this case, such as the tactics used during the arrests, the arrests of journalists covering the protests, the methods of evidence gathering employed in the months after the arrests, etc.  But the very fact that these defendants face these charges when there is no evidence they personally caused any damage should have us all very concerned.  Any threat to an individual’s first amendment right is a threat to all of our first amendment rights.

Image courtesy of pixabay.com