DC prosecutors mum as report criticizes, praises police handling of Inauguration Day riots

WASHINGTON — Days after federal prosecutors dropped rioting charges against the final 39 of 234 defendants arrested on President Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia declined to elaborate on her charging decisions in the controversial case.

Meanwhile, an independent group, Police Foundation, released a report that both praised and criticized the performance of the Metropolitan Police Department during the Jan. 20, 2017, protests.

“Overall, MPD officers acted in a professional manner and effectively balanced the public safety of Inauguration attendees, residents, and employees with the First Amendment rights of demonstrators,” the report concluded.

“However, as some of the Inauguration demonstrations progressed and some became violent, MPD resources were overwhelmed, MPD failed to stop property damage and other threats to public safety, and some MPD officers engaged in crowd management tactics that departed from their standard operating procedures and national best practices.”

In a statement last Friday, the office of U.S. Attorney Jesse K. Liu formally dismissed the cases against 39 defendants awaiting trial. Earlier, 21 defendants pleaded guilty before trial, and one, Dane Powell, served jail time — four months behind bars.

In 2017, the first six defendants to go on trial were acquitted. Soon after, prosecutors dropped charges against more than 150 defendants. At a second trial, jurors either found defendants not guilty or were unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

Defense attorneys during both trials accused D.C. prosecutors of overreaching in the decision to indict more than 200 people for felony rioting. Prosecutors acknowledged they were unable to identify the much smaller number of masked protesters who used crowbars, bricks, and pieces of concrete to break windows of businesses in a 16-block stretch of downtown.

“The U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia believes that the evidence shows that a riot occurred on January 20, 2017, during which more than $100,000 in damage was caused to numerous public and private properties,” according to the statement from Liu’s office. “The destruction that occurred during these criminal acts was in sharp contrast to the peaceful demonstrations and gatherings that took place over the Inauguration weekend in the District of Columbia, and created a danger for all who were nearby.”

In June 2017, President Trump nominated Liu to become the District’s U.S. Attorney. She was confirmed by the Senate in September 2017.

The initial decision to indict the 234 was made by Liu’s predecessor, then-acting U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips, who was nominated by President Barack Obama in 2015 and served until September 2017.

Contacted by WTOP, Phillips declined to elaborate on his choice to indict the large number of black-clothed protesters for their role in what prosecutors claimed was a planned and orchestrated riot.

Liu’s spokesman, Bill Miller, said her office has “not done any interviews on the rioting cases, following our usual practice of not commenting beyond what is stated in court. We’ll respectfully decline this offer and stand with the statement that we issued last Friday.”

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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