Eight Washington residents arrested in April for demonstrating in favor of local budget autonomy and voting rights are finally getting their day in court.
More than 50 people were arrested during a series of protests earlier this year, but the eight defendants are among a handful of demonstrators contesting the charges. Other protesters, including Mayor Vincent Gray (D) and several councilmembers, avoided court by posting a bond and then forfeiting their right to appear in court, known as "post-and-forfeit.”
The bench trial was originally scheduled for Sept. 19, but Superior Court Judge Robert Morin ordered a continuance after finding that the city violated rules of discovery by failing to turn over video and photographs taken during the April events.
Seven of the defendants were arrested during an April 11 protest and are facing charges of failure to obey an officer and unlawful assembly-blocking passage. The eighth defendant, D.C. shadow Senator Michael Brown (D), was arrested during an April 15 protest and is facing a charge of failure to obey; a second charge of disorderly conduct was dismissed just before trial.
The trial began with more confusion over what evidence was admissible and whether the eight protesters would be tried together. Attorneys for the defendants objected to the prosecution’s use of one of the videotapes that had been introduced at the last minute in September, but Morin said he had never ruled the evidence would be inadmissible once it was turned over.
In opening statements, Assistant Attorney General Jemine Mode said she would present evidence proving that demonstrators at both protests were given three warnings by U.S. Capitol Police to move and purposefully remained in the middle of the street blocking traffic.
Only one defendant opted to give an opening statement at the start of the trial. Robert Brannum is representing himself, and said that the case was “about the exercise of free speech” and that the demonstrators were not breaching the peace.
The protests took place in April as Congress was considering action on a fiscal year 2011 spending bill that included measures restricting how city officials could spend local tax dollars. The riders served as a rallying point for advocates of D.C. voting rights and home rule. Brannum said that the proposals “stirred the people of the District of Columbia to anger” and “created an atmosphere for civil disturbance.”
Attorneys for the other defendants reserved their opening statements. The other protesters are being represented by Bethesda, Md.-based solo practitioner Mark Goldstone; Washington solo practitioner Ann Wilcox; Paul Strauss, a shadow senator for Washington, D.C. and an attorney with Paul Strauss & Associates; and Richard Bianco, also of Paul Strauss & Associates.