High stakes trial of inauguration protesters goes off the rails

The First Amendment dies not with a bang, but with a "Low Battery" pop-up warning.

A sign for the I.T. Help Desk outside the Washington, D.C. courtroom where prosecutors are seeking lengthy prison sentences for protesters caught in a police dragnet on Inauguration Day. (CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Alan Pyke)
A sign for the I.T. Help Desk outside the Washington, D.C. courtroom where prosecutors are seeking lengthy prison sentences for protesters caught in a police dragnet on Inauguration Day. (CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Alan Pyke)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The second day of a landmark criminal trial with grim, sweeping civil rights implications often felt more like farce than tragedy on Tuesday.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys have only just begun to wrestle over the facts in an unprecedented series of felony trials stemming from the mass round-up arrest of hundreds of protesters on Inauguration Day. The federal government is arguing that everyone charged was an active participant, provoking alarming notions of collective punishment, but video evidence and media reports indicate that many caught in the mass arrest were not organized Antifa disrupters but rather onlookers caught in a dragnet.

With so much at stake, the judge, lawyers, and staffers involved are working to ensure a speedy, professional, and lawful process. But the technology needed to make such a complicated video-reliant case move forward wouldn’t allow them to prosper. Wonky HDMI cables, rechargeable wireless headsets and frozen laptops repeatedly left the well-meaning but often confused attorneys to spar with technology more than with each other.

Lawyers from each side struggled Tuesday to work up any kind of rhythm in their questioning because of the repeated interruptions necessary to navigate the gigantic pile of video evidence the government is relying upon. One might expect a serious felony trial involving thousands of gigabytes of video data covering hours of chaos in the streets to have some state-of-the-art system for playback — or at least the kind of pre-cut clips common on sports highlights shows.

But the law and order playing out in Courtroom 203 of the D.C. Superior Court has no such handy facilitation.

“I’m just going to back it up and—oops too far,” Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) Rizwan Qureshi said while trying to examine one government witness Tuesday.

The system befuddled defense attorneys just as much during their attempts at cross-examination. When one of the six defendants’ lawyers sought to play back video for a Metropolitan Police Department officer, her colleague’s computer froze up and only played sound. As the team tried to figure it out, Judge Lynn Leibovitz leaned toward their table and suggested they all “might want to get a tech person.”

Earlier in the day, defense counsel Andrew Lazerow began his questioning of a Customs and Border Protection helicopter pilot by saying he wanted to revisit a portion of video shot from the man’s chopper.

“Do you know how to do that?” AUSA Jennifer Kerkhoff offered helpfully as Lazerow reached the examiner’s console.

“Uh, no,” Lazerow said back.

“It’s okay, here,” Kerkhoff said, rising to show her opposing counsel how to work the touch-screen system.

The interruption itself took about as long as Lazerow’s brief, narrow questioning of the pilot.

The serial tech hang-ups gave the proceedings an air of farce. But what’s going on in that room is no remedial IT lesson. The government’s case puts the protections embedded at the very top of the Bill of Rights under serious duress.

Alexei Wood, one of the six defendants whose trials are being run concurrently before the same jury, says he was present at the Inauguration Day chaos as a photojournalist. In a gray suit and mismatched Chuck Taylors, the curly-haired Wood watched from the defense table Tuesday morning as federal prosecutors argued that the jury must be allowed to see footage where a police officer appears to get struck in the groin with a projectile.

It’s relevant, they said, because Wood can be heard to say something like “please tell me you got that” just after the incident. Prosecutors will argue Wood was enjoying himself as a participant in a riot, and not the adrenalized reporter trying to catch video of a major news event on a chaotic city street who his attorney will present.

A serious felony case against someone who says he was conducting constitutionally protected journalism puts the whole of the reporting profession at some real risk, with years yet to go in a presidency that’s already galvanizing unusual levels of street unrest. AUSA Kerkhoff promised jurors on Monday that they would be shown how a “sea of black masks” had swept downtown Washington, D.C., to break the law. Defense attorneys countered that the government is trying to chill the freedom of expression that is the basis of any sound democracy. The cases open the door to redefining First Amendment protections, as legal experts told ThinkProgress back in January, and follow Trump’s own day-one pledge on the White House website “not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter.”

But it was hard to feel the weight of a threat to the U.S. tradition of open-society governance in court Tuesday. The plague of gadget issues gave the trial a slapstick vibe, punctuated occasionally by longer sections of video — then revived again by the next misclick.

A glitch in the courtroom systems caused the volume to automatically snap back to zero each time a user switched from one video to another or turns the screens off and back on. The judge asked the clerk to look into it. An hour later with a different witness on the stand, Qureshi tried to keep his patter with the woman going as he introduced another snippet.

“Now I’m going to ask Ms. Kerkhoff to hit play,” Qureshi said to his witness. The frozen frame on the screens leaped into motion, but silently. “And of course, the volume’s stopped,” Qureshi said with a sigh.

After the clip — which defense attorneys argued shows a few individuals trying to break a gas station window as the vast majority of the group keeps walking steadily toward the site where protesters and vandals alike were later kettled, pepper-sprayed, and arrested en masse — the prosecutor turned the screens off to focus on further questioning. But a familiar, mournful chime sound played through the courtroom speakers. “Low Battery,” the screens warned, prompting chuckles from a few jurors.

Not every moment of witness testimony required video. Lawyers examining witnesses consistently shut off the courtroom’s half-dozen large video screens when they weren’t needed.

Or at least, they tried. The glowing rectangles didn’t always cooperate. At one point when the screens were supposed to be dark, the Microsoft Windows lock screen showed up on all the monitors. The background image was an artsy stock photo of small loaves of bread cooling on a drying rack.

After a moment’s pause to kill the jaunty screensaver photo, the prosecutors got back to business convincing jurors that the six men and women on trial should be kept in cages for decades.