- Maria Recio American-Statesman special correspondent
Texas freelance photographer Alexei Wood and five other defendants were acquitted by a jury on all counts Thursday in a monthlong trial of protesters accused of rioting, conspiracy to riot and destroying property on Inauguration Day.
The case was, to many observers, a test of the First Amendment, especially of freedom of the press for Wood, who livestreamed the protest and march along 16 blocks.
“I don’t feel any more innocent than when it started,” Wood told the American-Statesman. “To be honest, I was confident (in the outcome). I thought the prosecution’s narrative was tremendously weak.”
Wood’s confidence belied an emotional undertow. When the verdict was read, he sat down, held his head in his hands and cried.
Afterward, he said, “Absolutely, this was a victory for the First Amendment. The heaviness of this trial’s implications far surpassed my concerns for myself.”
Wood and the other defendants were facing more than 50 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines on five felony counts of destroying property and two misdemeanor counts of engaging in a riot and conspiracy to riot. U.S. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibowitz threw out a felony charge of inciting a riot.
The jury, which began deliberations Friday, rejected the prosecution’s argument that the actions of a few breaking windows and destroying property made other protesters nearby complicit as they “re-absorbed” the lawbreakers as part of a large protest of President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia believes that the evidence shows that a riot occurred on Jan. 20, 2017, during which numerous public and private properties were damaged or destroyed,” spokesman Bill Miller said in a statement.
“The criminal justice process ensures that every defendant is judged based on his or her personal conduct and intent. We appreciate the jury’s close examination of the individual conduct and intent of each defendant during this trial and respect its verdict. In the remaining pending cases, we look forward to the same rigorous review for each defendant,” Miller said.
There are more than 180 defendants left in the case — including another Texas native and journalist, Aaron Cantú — scheduled for trials over the next year.
Most of the protesters wore black and covered their faces — evidence of a conspiracy, prosecutors said — although Wood, who can be seen on his video, did not. Prosecutors, however, highlighted Wood’s commentary during the video, which seemed to be shouts of approval and which the government said amounted to encouraging the destruction of property.
Brett Cohen, Wood’s court-appointed attorney, said that when he and other lawyers talked to the jury privately after the verdicts were announced that several of the jurors said Wood’s case was the most difficult to decide.
“It was a tough case and I am thrilled for Alexei who had no intent to commit any crimes,” Cohen said.
Several press freedom groups have supported Wood, a self-described independent journalist, and Cantú.
“This is a welcome development, but it underscores that these arrests and prosecutions never should have happened in the first place,” said Gabe Rottman, Washington director of PEN America, a literary and free speech organization. “Several defendants had to leave their jobs and move to D.C. to defend their First Amendment rights against prosecutors who basically argued that if you’re in a protest with a few bad apples, they’ll literally read you the riot act. It’s time to drop the rest of these charges.”
“This is a victory for citizens and journalists in a society striving to be more democratic,” said Robert Jensen, University of Texas journalism professor. “Freedom of the press and freedom of association are at the core of self-governance, and this is an important statement of how an authoritarian executive cannot act with impunity.”
Cantú, who was covering the demonstrations for a digital publication and who now writes for a paper in Santa Fe, N.M., is scheduled to go to trial October 2018. “It was good news but I’m not in the clear yet. Of course, this does give me momentum and is the first bit of hope I have felt in a year,” he said via email.