Jury selection began Wednesday for the cases of the first defendants to face trial in the Inauguration Day riots in downtown Washington, with the judge quickly asking prospective jurors about their views.
"What I am asking you is whether anything you may have heard about that day would keep you from fairly and impartially deciding this case? What are your feelings about the president and Inauguration Day, and will those feelings keep you from fairly and impartially deciding on a case and viewing evidence?" D.C. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz asked the 70 panelists.
The six defendants, whose trial could begin as soon as Monday, are charged with felony rioting in the Jan. 20 disruption that left several businesses vandalized and resulted in thousands of dollars in damage.
In all, prosecutors charged 212 people in connection with the riots. So far, 20 have pleaded guilty and prosecutors dropped cases against another 20. Trials for the others, in groups of five or more, are set to occur almost monthly through mid-2018.
Prosecutors allege that a group called Disrupt J20 helped plan protests that pulled in participants from across the country. They said some rioters used "black bloc" tactics — wearing all black and hiding their faces with masks and goggles so it would be harder to identify them.
The first defendants to face trial are Michelle Macchio, 26, of Naples, Fla.; Jennifer Armento, 38, of Philadelphia; Christina Simmons, 20, of Cockeysville, Md.; Alexei Wood, 37, of San Antonio; Oliver Harris, 28, of Philadelphia; and Brittne Lawson, 27, of Pittsburgh.
The trial is expected to last through mid-December.
The six defendants face felony counts of inciting a riot and destruction of property, charges that carry a maximum penalty of 10 years each.
They also face lesser charges.
Six officers were injured during the riots.
On Wednesday, Leibovitz, who is overseeing most of the protest trials, interviewed the potential jurors while two prosecutors, the co-defendants and their attorneys listened and asked additional questions.
Each prospective juror was given an index card and a pencil to write their answers.
Leibovitz asked if any of them lived or worked in the downtown Washington area where the rioting occurred. The jurors were also asked if they had any bias for or against police officers or would give any greater or lesser weight to the testimony of a police officer.
Many of the jurors said they heard about the riots through the media. Leibovitz said that was expected.
"Based on what you heard, do you think you would be unable to be impartial as a juror in this case?" she continually asked. None of the jurors said they would. One man who has multiple family members who worked as police officers told Leibovitz he would give "extra weight" to the testimony of a police officer.
Leibovitz immediately dismissed him.
During the day, Leibovitz stepped down from the bench and sat at a table next to each potential juror who was called to speak. Several of the attorneys for the defendants repeatedly asked the judge to move away because many of the jurors were speaking softly and couldn't easily be heard in the courtroom.
Leibovitz refused to move.
"I need to sit right next to them. I want them to be committed to this process, and I want to look them right in their eye," she said.
A woman who said she was downtown at the time of the riots was dismissed because she said she saw several of the damaged buildings. "I saw things that looked like they followed a violent aftermath," she said.
Another woman was sent home after she said her nephew, who is a police officer, was injured in the riots.
The trial will ultimately include 16 jurors, including four alternatives. A second day of jury selection was scheduled for Thursday.
By lunch break, some 17 of the jurors were already qualified, and after the questioning of about 25 people, none expressed negative comments about the president. By the end of the day, at least 36 people were found to be qualified to serve.