234 arrests, 0 jury convictions: DC police chief calls for new law after inauguration riots

WASHINGTON — The images were startling: Black-clad rioters, wearing masks, using crowbars to smash windows of businesses in the nation’s capital, throwing bricks and pieces of concrete at police officers, blocks away from where Donald Trump was being sworn-in as the 45th president of the United States.

234 people were arrested, and 214 were indicted for felonies and misdemeanors, with each facing a maximum of 70 years in prison.

Yet, not a single defendant was found guilty by juries in D.C. Superior Court.

D.C.’s police chief Peter Newsham believes it is time to change the District’s rioting law. U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Jessie Liu has not answered questions about her office’s decision to indict more than 200 people.

In a WTOP interview, Newsham said “We should consider taking a look at the statute for rioting and maybe adjusting that in a way that protects our city.”

Twenty-one defendants pleaded guilty before trial, and one, Dane Powell, served jail time — four months behind bars, for throwing rocks and bricks at police officers, and shattering store windows.

After the first six defendants to go on trial were found not guilty, prosecutors dropped charges against more than 150 others.

In a second trial, no defendants were convicted. Jurors said prosecutors had failed to prove the people on trial were personally responsible for property damage or personal injuries.

“No judicial officers or judges who heard any of the cases ever suggested there wasn’t probable cause for the arrests,” said Newsham. “Making a case (at trial) beyond a reasonable doubt is a much higher standard.”

On January 20, 2017, “we had tens of thousands of people in the District of Columbia, who peacefully exercised their First Amendment rights,” said Newsham.

Late that morning, several hundred protesters, dressed in black, and masked to conceal their identities roamed through a 16-block area of downtown, loudly protesting against President Trump.

“The U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia believes that the evidence shows that a riot occurred on January 20, during which more than $100,000 in damage was caused to numerous public and private properties,” according to a statement from Liu’s office, on July 7, in dismissing all 39 remaining Inauguration Day cases.

Prosecutors and police acknowledged the black clothing and masks worn by hundreds of protesters made it difficult to identify the much smaller number people who wielded bricks and crowbars.

“Essentially what they were doing was facilitating the illegal behavior, and whenever you make a facilitation case, that’s a difficult case for prosecutors to make,” said Newsham. Establishing probable cause for facilitating a crime “is much easier than establishing it beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Defense attorneys and civil liberties advocates had been critical of the arrests and prosecutions of protesters, who they said, were voicing their opposition to Trump.

Newsham said he believes the District’s rioting statute should be tweaked to enable facilitation cases.

“I haven’t run into a person yet that wasn’t absolutely appalled by the images they saw in Washington, D.C., that day, by a small number of people,” said Newsham. “I don’t think anyone has a tolerance for that.”

WTOP has repeatedly offered Liu the opportunity to discuss her charging decisions, and Newsham’s suggestion of attempting to change the riot statute, but spokesman Bill Miller declined.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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