During opening statements Wednesday in the trial of four people charged with rioting during President Trump’s inauguration, federal prosectors said they have video of three of the defendants committing vandalism.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff said images of the three were captured as they smashed the windows of downtown businesses, and one of them can be seen tossing lit flares. She said there’s no evidence that the fourth person caused damage himself, but prosecutors allege that he was involved in planning rioting.
“This trial is not about protests or disagreements or dissent. This was not just a protest,” Kerkhoff said in D.C. Superior Court. “When you incorporate violence and destruction, it is no longer a protest. And violence and destruction are a crime.”
Kerkhoff’s remarks highlighted evidence that prosecutors say sets this case apart from a trial last year that ended with the acquittals of six other participants in the massive protests on Jan. 20, 2017.
In the first trial, prosecutors alleged that the defendants were part of a group — most of whom were dressed all in black and concealed their faces with masks — that cut a violent swath through the city. While the government presented no evidence of vandalism by those defendants, prosecutors argued that everyone in the group bore responsibility for the damage. They said others were aware of the destruction and essentially shielded those who caused the damage.
The defense in that case contended that their clients were peacefully exercising their right to free speech, and should not be accountable for those who peeled off and turned destructive. Jurors ultimately agreed.
This time, Kerkhoff told jurors the government had strong evidence — culled largely from police body-worn cameras, security cameras and cellphone cameras — linking each defendant to vandalism or planning. But defense attorneys questioned the quality and clarity of the images, disputing that the government had correctly identified their clients.
“All they can show you are grainy videos and blurred photos to stitch together a narrative. They are desperate to pin this damage on someone. On anyone,” argued Rich Gallena, who represents Michael Basillas, 32, of New York.
Seth Schrager, another defense attorney, told jurors they will have to watch “hundreds of hours” of video during the trial.
“It’s going to be like watching America’s Home Videos and YouTube. That’s what it will be and you will see it’s not evidence,” said Schrager, who represents Seth Cadman, 27, of Virginia Beach.
In all, 234 people were charged in connection with the Inauguration Day riots. Twenty of those people have pleaded guilty.
The acquittals last year forced prosecutors to re-examine their remaining cases. In January, the government dismissed cases against 129 people. The four defendants on trial now are among 59 whose cases are pending.
In addition to Basillas and Cadman, the defendants are Anthony Felice, 26, of Wilmington Beach, N.C., and Casey Webber, 29, of Washington. Each faces various charges, including felony rioting and destruction of property.
Kerkhoff said the four dressed in black and covered their faces with masks to blend in with hundreds of protesters as they marched through the streets of downtown Washington. She said the defendants broke off from the group to smash storefronts, set fires and cause other property damage.
Kerkhoff showed images from videos which she said depicted the defendants. She showed a person she said was Basillas, saying he could be identified by his hat, glasses and gloves. The prosecutor alleged that he vandalized a BP gas station on 13th Street and broke glass at a Crowne Plaza hotel and nearby Starbucks.
Kerkhoff also showed photos of a person she said was Cadman breaking windows.
The prosecutor next showed images of a person she said was Felice breaking windows at the Starbucks and throwing lit flares. Felice is also charged with resisting arrest.
Kerkhoff did say there was no evidence that Webber was involved in the rioting. However, she said there are electronic messages that the government believes show Webber was involved in the planning of the riots.
In one of the most contentious clashes during the jury selection process before the trial began, prosecutors said they plan to play a video showing a person they say is Felice burning an American flag. Although flag burning is protected speech, prosecutors said they intended to use the video to identify Felice.
Felice’s attorney, Matthew Rist, argued that the video was prejudicial and had nothing to do with the rioting charges.
Judge Kimberley Knowles, who is overseeing the trial, ruled that the video could remain as evidence. Rist then asked the judge to question those in the jury pool about whether they would be biased if they saw a video of someone allegedly burning the American flag as opposed to viewing the action as freedom of speech.
During the first day of jury selection, only one person was dismissed after saying she could not be impartial after seeing such a video.
The trial is expected to take up to three weeks.