The first trial of nearly 200 Inauguration Day protesters charged with rioting, conspiracy to riot and destruction of property went to a jury Friday afternoon, a month after it began.
Freelance photojournalist Alexei Wood of San Antonio and five other defendants could receive more than 50 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines if convicted. The judge dropped one felony count of inciting a riot.
Wood is one of two journalists, both from Texas, who have been charged in the case, which centers on First Amendment rights: freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
There are so many defendants — 188 after the six on trial now — that Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz is trying them in small groups in trials scheduled through the end of 2018. Initially, 234 people were charged; 20 cases were dismissed, and there were 20 guilty pleas.
The closing arguments by the government and defense focused on the prosecution theory that the group had organized with the intention of disrupting the inauguration of President Donald Trump on Jan. 20. Damage to storefronts with broken glass and other destruction totaled over $103,000.
“We’ve been here for the last few weeks because the defendants agreed to destroy your city, and now they’re hiding behind the First Amendment,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Rizwan Qureshi said.
“This wasn’t just any riot,” he said. “This wasn’t spontaneous. This was advertised. This was planned.”
The most visible evidence that the protesters were organized with a game plan, said Qureshi, was that the vast majority were dressed in black, most with masks or other face coverings to avoid identification, and with changes of clothing in their backpacks and items such as goggles to protect from pepper spray.
The case appears likely to turn on video evidence, taken from cellphones, surveillance and store cameras and especially Wood’s 42-minute video of the entire event, livestreamed on Facebook, which Qureshi said was the single most important piece of evidence in the trial. The “riot,” according to lead prosecutor Jennifer Kerkhoff in her opening statement, lasted “16 city blocks, 33 minutes.”
It was Wood, 37, who provided continuous coverage. But he was not wearing black and his face is frequently visible in the video when he turns the camera on himself . He can often be heard voicing whoops and providing commentary.
The prosecutor used Wood’s video against him by showing clips of the Texan appearing to enjoy some of the damage — “whoo,” he called out as he filmed someone drawing on a wall, “we got some gra-fi-tay” for graffiti. Wood, who frequently interspersed his comments with “y’all,” is heard also saying “whoo” when the windows of a limousine are being broken and “whoo-whoo” in front of a McDonald’s that had some windows broken.
At one point, he conveyed the excitement of the march by saying, “This is Seattle ’99,” referring to violent skirmishes in protest of the World Trade Organization at the “Battle of Seattle,” which Wood said he was sorry he missed. “I’m (expletive) blissed out,” he said.
Qureshi said of Wood, “It’s not journalism. … He is aiding and abetting. He is egging them on.”
Qureshi also challenged Wood’s credentials as a journalist and said police seized a “fake press badge” from Wood that had his picture but the name “John Osburn,” which was never explained by the defense. Wood and his attorney, Brett Cohen, told the American-Statesman that he didn’t use the press badge to identify himself, but Wood would not say who Osburn was.
“The closest Mr. Wood has gotten to a journalist is the people he’s talked to about being arrested. His conduct is criminal,” Qureshi said.
Cohen, Wood’s attorney, rejoined in his closing that his client was being pursued by prosecutors “for journalism the government doesn’t like.” Wood, he said, was there “to deliver a message of what is going on in the streets — your streets — of D.C.”
As for the bogus press badge, Cohen asked, “Are you required to have a press pass to be a journalist?” He said that “sometimes people don’t want to be identified,” adding that “there are many reasons why anyone would have a fake press pass.”
He pointed to the 9,000 pages of data extracted from Wood’s cellphone, which Cohen said make clear that his client was coming to D.C. to cover the inauguration and did not participate in any conspiracy.
Cohen said that “the internet has expanded that definition” of journalism and that he would leave it up to the jury to decide and that Wood’s “vocalizations” during the protest were for his video audience, not to egg on the protesters.
Wood, who maintains he is a journalist, did not testify in the case, nor did any of the other defendants. The lanky Texan with tousled, wavy hair was a distinctive presence during the trial, wearing three-piece suits with mismatched sneakers.
He said he’s had his life upended since being arrested Jan. 20. “I’m sort of floating around,” Wood told the Statesman. He has put all his belongings in storage in San Antonio and has been helped by supporters for the cost of travel and for his frequent stays in Washington.