After nearly 10 months, Desiree Fairooz is a fully free woman. Federal prosecutors backed off their plans to prosecute her a second time Monday on charges stemming from her reflexive chuckling at Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearings last winter.
Fairooz’s crime was finding it funny that someone would describe Sessions as “treating all Americans equally under the law” throughout his three-decade public career. A rookie cop from the Capitol Police immediately cuffed Fairooz and dragged her out of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room in January after she chuckled at Sen. Richard Shelby’s (R-AL) characterization of Sessions’ civil rights record.
Sessions was previously kept off the federal judiciary after former colleagues from his days as a prosecutor alleged he had made racist jokes and misused investigative resources to punish black voting rights organizers. A letter from Coretta Scott King declaring Sessions an enemy of everything her husband had fought for also helped doom his bid for the bench. (It was a humiliating episode for Sessions, though apparently not as severe an embarrassment as a conversation with President Donald Trump that Sessions reportedly described as the most humiliating experience of his career earlier this year.)
Sessions’ record on treatment of black citizens was again a central item in Democratic senators’ questioning back in January when Trump put him up for the nation’s top law enforcement job. The decision to throw the criminal law book at Fairooz for the sin of laughing at Sessions’ sorest spot carried an air of retribution.
Prosecutors did initially win a conviction in the case. But a judge annulled it after finding that they had lied to jurors about what the laws in question say in relation to the act of laughing at a public hearing. Prosecutors had signaled in court at the time that they would re-file the case and try again, the Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly reported. But they instead filed a motion to drop the case on Monday, days before Fairooz’s second trial was set to begin.
Like Thabo Sefolosha in very different circumstances last year, Fairooz owes her newly cleared record to some fundamental good fortune. She could afford to reject a plea deal offered to her earlier this year following the rescission of her initial conviction. Sefalosha was only able to vindicate his own rights following an assault by New York cops outside a nightclub because he is financially secure enough to fight a case like that, rather than accept a plea that would not have seen him jailed but would have negated his ability to sue the city over the assault.
Plea offers like the ones Fairooz and Sefolosha declined are a key tool in a prosecutor’s belt. Trials are expensive and outcomes are uncertain. Plea bargains can sometimes serve the interests of justice and of taxpayer frugality. But they are also wielded, in many cases, as a cudgel to discourage people who insist upon their innocence from risking that a jury would disagree and impose a longer sentence.
Fairooz was just one of several people associated with activist group Code Pink present at Sessions’ hearings. The group and other dissenting citizens repeatedly disrupted the event with shouts and chants, leading to numerous arrests.
The Trump administration is openly hostile to such exercises of dissent. Now that Trump and Sessions command actual power, the president’s campaign-era habit of encouraging his fans to rough up opponents at his rallies has morphed into something bigger.
Despite dropping the untenable case against Fairooz, Sessions’ prosecutors continue to seek decade-long felony sentences for hundreds of people rounded up in a police dragnet on Inauguration Day ostensibly sparked by vandalism committed by a handful of Antifa protesters. Sessions’ staff have sought to obtain internet records of every person who visited a website tied to the organizers of the Inauguration Day protests. And members of Congress are now asking Sessions to treat environmental protesters as terrorists.
State and local figures have gotten the message. Arizona police reacted aggressively to peaceful protests outside a Trump rally in Phoenix in August. Missouri officers opted for similar tactics during one of several nights of street protests over the acquittal of a police officer accused of homicide on duty.
Trump and Sessions alike have decried professional athletes for protesting police racism and violence by kneeling during the National Anthem. Fellow travelers of the arch-conservative regime have openly called for violence against protesters, some even seeking to make it legal to ram your car through peaceably assembled marchers blocking a roadway.