Journalist Charged With Rioting at Inauguration Day Protest Goes Free

A video that Alexei Wood had streamed on Facebook during the protest was used as evidence by the prosecution and the defense.

Alexei Wood, a journalist who was arrested while covering a protest of Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, was found not guilty at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on Thursday of all seven counts against him, including conspiracy to riot and several counts of destruction of property. Mr. Wood had originally faced up to 61 years in prison.

His five fellow defendants — Michelle Macchio, Jennifer Armento, Christina Simmons, Oliver Harris and Brittne Lawson — were also found not guilty of all charges after a nearly four-week trial.

“Alexei was overwhelmed in court and doubled over crying,” Brett E. Cohen, Mr. Wood’s lawyer, said in an interview soon after the decision came in. “In these times of press persecution, I feel this is an important victory.”

Prosecutors said the six defendants were among a group that cut a violent swath through 16 blocks of the city, smashing windows of businesses, tossing newspaper boxes into the street and damaging a car. Authorities tallied the damages at more than $100,000. The lawyers for the defendants had countered that their clients and most others in the group of about 500 were peacefully protesting, with only a handful becoming violent.

Mr. Wood, 37, a freelance photographer and videographer based in San Antonio, was one of over 200 people arrested at the protest, which was organized by an activist group called Disrupt J20. Among those arrested were nine journalists. The government has dropped the charges against seven of those people. Mr. Wood and Aaron Cantú, a staff reporter at The Santa Fe Reporter in New Mexico who was working as a freelancer in January, were the only two journalists who faced charges. Mr. Cantú’s trial is scheduled for October 2018.

Mr. Wood had primarily worked as a commercial photographer but had been trying to build his portfolio as a photojournalist when he went to cover the J20 protest.

Leading up to Inauguration Day, Mr. Wood sent emails to editors in San Antonio, including one to an editor at Rivard Report, a local news website. One email read, “Just checking in. Got any assignments you want to throw at me?” In another, Mr. Wood said he was interested in focusing on “street friction, protest and support and police.”

Mr. Wood live-streamed the event on Facebook, which ended up being a prime piece of evidence in the case — both for the prosecution and his defense.

The Facebook video showed Mr. Wood documenting the protest as it turned violent, and into what the government classified as a riot. Mr. Wood can be seen taking photographs and is heard letting out cries of “Whoo!” as he documents protesters vandalizing property. He also identifies himself as a journalist and flashes a press pass.

In their closing argument, Jennifer Kerkhoff and Rizwan Qureshi, the assistant United States attorneys, said that by attending the riot and wearing black, Mr. Wood and his fellow defendants were intent on destruction. Mr. Qureshi told the jury that Mr. Wood and the five others who stood trial “agreed to destroy your city, and now they’re hiding behind the First Amendment.”

After the verdict was announced, the U.S. Attorneys Office for the District of Columbia released a statement that said, in part, “We appreciate the jury’s close examination of the individual conduct and intent of each defendant during this trial and respect its verdict.”

During the trial Mr. Cohen asserted that the government did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Wood intended to recruit demonstrators with his live-stream. The video, which now has more than 4,300 views on Mr. Wood’s Facebook page, did not reach many people when it was live. At points during the broadcast Mr. Wood said that only one or two people were tuned in.

“What we found most troubling was that the prosecutors argued the fact that Alexei filming meant he was supporting it and made him more complicit,” said Alexandra Ellerbeck, the North America program coordinator for Committee to Protect Journalists. “I think those arguments didn’t hold up and the jury very clearly saw through them.”

Mr. Wood is one of 32 journalists who were arrested in 2017, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

“We’re happy that this ordeal is finally over for Alexei Wood,” Ms. Ellerbeck said. “The fact that this went to trial in the first place, where there was clearly nothing there, was already problematic.”

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