Around the corner from the federal courthouse in downtown Washington where media crews have spent the past year recording the many comings and goings of President Donald Trump’s indicted associates, another, far less heralded legal struggle unfolded with arguably greater ramifications for American democracy than anything special counsel Robert Mueller discovers.
This was the plight of the 234 people rounded up and jailed during street protests on Trump’s Inauguration Day last year. All, including some reporters, medics and legal observers, were charged with felony rioting and conspiracy, and a few with criminal vandalism, counts that made them theoretically subject to consecutive prison sentences totaling 60 years or more. A private study later concluded that police were overwhelmed by sporadic violence, with some officers abandoning procedures and resorting to indiscriminate pepper spray and roundups, which “contributed to a large number of First Amendment demonstrators arrested who were not directly involved in destructive or violent behavior.”
Twenty-one defendants quickly pleaded guilty to rioting charges. But even as the Justice Department vigorously—critics say improperly—pursued guilty verdicts in the remaining 200-plus cases, its strategies began falling apart, some over questions of how the government gathered and suppressed exculpatory evidence; others over spurious charges that linked all the demonstrators to an alleged conspiracy by a few to vandalize property and attack police.