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Yesterday, jury selection began for the first Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) trial for a Stop Cop City protester. The defendant, Ayla King, is accused of criminal trespass and “join[ing] an organized mob…thereby aiding and abetting in the offense of Arson and Domestic Terrorism.” On March 5, King was arrested on domestic terrorism charges alongside 22 other people attending a music festival in the Weelaunee forest in Atlanta. Activists, bystanders, and a legal observer were arrested, with warrants citing such speculative evidence as wearing black and having muddy shoes. King pleaded not guilty and is the first of the people indicted under RICO to stand trial.
Potential jurors quizzed about protest
In jury selection, both the defense and prosecution attorneys asked extensive questions about potential jurors’ involvement in protest movements.
Several potential jurors attended Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, which in Atlanta centered on the police murders of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. As elsewhere in the country, some Black Lives Matter protests included property destruction. Anticipating future guilt-by-association arguments the prosecution is likely to make later in the trial, the defense asked several jurors whether they supported the conduct of every protest attendee. (It’s worth noting that the Georgia Attorney General marked the date police killed George Floyd as the beginning of the Stop Cop City conspiracy).
Here is one exchange between the defense attorney and a potential juror:
Defense attorney: Are you aware that Black Lives Matter is an organization?
Potential juror: Yes.
Defense attorney: Oh, so you support them.
Potential juror: Yes.
Defense attorney: If you support them, do you support all things done by these protests?
Potential juror: No.
Defense attorney: By going to these protests, were you giving your approval for the destruction of property?
Potential juror: No.
Notably, the RICO case deals with conspiracy, which can carry guilt-by-association legal issues even under more stringent statutes. The RICO statute, passed by legislators trying to ensnare slippery mafia members, leaves wide potential for abuse. In this conspiracy case, the prosecution will likely attempt to prove only that King was part of the black block contingent that marched on the Cop City construction site – not that King personally burned down bulldozers or threw fireworks at police officers. Creating a distinction between ideological affinity for a group – protected speech and association – versus conspiracy to commit a specific crime will be a key component of the defense.
Encryption and suspicion
From activists to big banks, many rely on encryption to defend online communications from prying eyes. Because encryption protects private communications from surveillance, privacy tech often falls under siege from law enforcement bodies. In this session alone, Congress introduced two bills that could fatally undermine encryption. Even as the Atlanta Police Department uses the encrypted messaging app Signal to hide their own communications from the public, the RICO indictment casts activists’ antisurveillance measures as evidence in itself of conspiracy.
Possibly trying to screen out jurors familiar with encryption technology, the prosecution submitted questions pertaining to potential jurors’ familiarity with ProtonMail, VPNs, the dark web, and encryption generally. Between five and ten of the first day’s potential jurors were indeed familiar with encrypted communications, mostly through work in the financial sector. One person said that he uses ProtonMail simply because he dislikes targeted advertising.
A comment that may haunt the prosecutor: After a juror said that technology like encryption goes over her head, the prosecutor said: “It goes over my head too.”
Jury selection is expected to conclude today, and the jury trial will commence immediately after. We’ll be covering the trial closely – watch for further coverage!