In a decision civil liberties groups applauded as "a tremendous victory for the right to dissent," a jury on Thursday returned not guilty verdicts for six Americans on trial for protesting President Donald Trump's inauguration on January 20, 2017.
"A huge victory for democracy and protest, a huge defeat for the police state and the suppression of dissent."
—Angus Johnston, City University of New York
The group of protesters—which includes a nurse, a photojournalist, and a college student—could have faced decades in prison if convicted on charges that ranged from property destruction to conspiracy to riot.
Scott Michelman, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of D.C., said in a statement Thursday that the jury's decision to acquit the defendants of all charges "reaffirms two central constitutional principles of our democracy: first, that dissent is not a crime, and second, that our justice system does not permit guilt by association."
"We hope today's verdict begins the important work of teaching police and prosecutors to respect the line between lawbreaking and constitutionally protected protest," Michelman added.
— Angus Johnston (@studentactivism) December 21, 2017
The trial of the six protesters began on November 20, and it was just the first of many set to take place in the coming months. More than 200 anti-Trump demonstrators, legal observers, and journalists were "indiscriminately" swept up in mass arrests carried out during inauguration protests in January. More than 180 demonstrators are still awaiting their time in court.
Jude Ortiz, mass defense committee chair for the National Lawyers Guild, called the jury's verdict on Thursday a "resounding victory" and argued it is proof of "the prosecution's complete lack of evidence."
Michelman of the ACLU agreed, noting that "for nearly a year these people have been under the cloud of felony charges that have turned their lives upside down, subjecting them to the anxiety and expense of defending themselves against charges that should never have been brought."
"No one should have to fear arrest or prosecution for coming to the nation's capital to express opinions peacefully, no matter what those opinions may be," Michelman concluded. "We hope that the U.S. Attorney's Office gets the message and moves quickly to drop all remaining changes against peaceful demonstrators."