Prosecution drops charges against core of anti-Trump protester defendants

The move suggests that the government is ready to give up on the cases.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20:  Police officers wearing tactical gear form a barrier with riot shields to prevent the movement of protestors after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States January 20, 2017 in Washington D.C.  (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Police officers wearing tactical gear form a barrier with riot shields to prevent the movement of protestors after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States January 20, 2017 in Washington D.C. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Prosecutors dropped charges on Thursday against a half-dozen people the government has sought to imprison for decades for their roles in planning a 2017 anti-Trump march.

The judge in the case, visibly angry on the bench as prosecutors could not explain why their colleagues had lied to him about evidence in their possession months earlier, dismissed one of the charges with prejudice. Prosecutors can still pursue misdemeanor rioting and property damage charges if they wish, but are forbidden from charging a conspiracy to riot — the most serious felony among the several counts levied against the marchers.

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Government lawyers have pursued felony charges against everyone they could connect to the Inauguration Day march branded as #DisruptJ20, generating dozens of separate group trials that sprawled out over nearly a year and a half.

Their case relied heavily on videos provided by the right-wing hoax group Project Veritas. Prosecutors now stand accused of hiding some 69 separate video and audio recordings provided by that group from defense counsel, including material the lawyers say would have helped their clients.

“They have offered no explanation why they did not apprise the court of the existence of these videos,” Chief Judge Robert Morin said.

The newly-discovered videos emerged just days before jury selection would have begun in the case that was dismissed Thursday, prompting a lengthy overnight filing from defense counsel that laid out evidence the prosecution has been reckless or perhaps even malicious in its management of evidence.

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Thursday’s ruling ends a nearly 18-month ordeal for seven of the defendants in the protest case. Its impact on pending trials for another 50-plus people accused of the same slew of felonies is yet unclear. The government is unlikely to give up entirely on the cases, having poured so many resources into them. But it appears ready to settle for only misdemeanor charges now that its ability to charge a conspiracy is limited by Morin’s ruling.

After saying Thursday they intended to pursue misdemeanors against three defendants whose cases were affected by Morin’s ruling, prosecutors reversed course late Friday and dropped all of those charges as well. The decisions leave 49 people, including the cluster whose jury began deliberating Thursday evening, still facing serious prison time unless prosecutors continue abandoning individual cases across the remainder of the indicted group.

The defendants grinned and nodded to one another in the courtroom Thursday as prosecutors first announced their plans to drop the cases. When Morin ruled to dismiss the conspiracy charge with prejudice, some in the group cried out happily or clapped their hands, prompting Morin to turn his ire briefly toward them.

A member of the U.S. Attorney’s Office told the judge they plan to stop using any videos from Project Veritas across the more than 50 remaining cases. That could scramble proceedings across a half-dozen other group trials that are supposed to begin this summer. The government is left chasing relatively minor punishments in those cases if it cannot argue that a felonious conspiracy tied all the defendants together in collective guilt for the property damage that a handful of their peers engaged in on Inauguration Day.

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As the dramatic unraveling of the central cluster of #J20 cases played out on the third floor of the courthouse, a separate group of accused rioters were not so lucky downstairs. Their trial is in closing arguments Thursday morning, and jurors have been shown materials generated by Project Veritas in that case.

The scheduling overlap meant that Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff, the lead prosecutor across all the #J20 cases and the woman whom defense attorneys say willfully concealed exculpatory evidence from them for more than a year, did not have to personally ask Morin to dismiss her case.

This is a breaking news piece that has been updated as more information emerged.