The first six of 194 individuals to stand trial for rioting during President Donald Trump's inauguration were found not guilty by a Washington D.C. jury Thursday. The decision to prosecute was widely viewed as an attempt to crack down on free speech by the current Department of Justice.
The six defendants, including a medic and a photojournalist, were not accused of breaking windows or damaging vehicles. Instead, the prosecution said they participated in and encouraged a riot in being near a protest where other people had shattered windows. A conviction on all counts could have meant 60 years in prison, and new threats to freedoms of assembly, speech, and press.
Prosecutors made no attempt to prove that the defendants engaged in destruction of property but that they were simply a party to the rioting by their very presence, with Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff telling the jurty, "You don’t personally have to be the one that breaks the window to be guilty of rioting."
“That was not their role. And the law the judge will instruct you is they didn’t have to do that. You don’t personally have to be the one that breaks the window to be guilty of rioting, to be guilty of agreeing to riot, because, as you’ll see from this case, you’ll see from the evidence, this group is a riot.”
In a strong rebuke to Kerkhoff's prosecution, the jury sided with the six defendants. For the 188 other defendants awaiting trial, Thursday's ruling is a sign that they, too, might walk free.