An Adams County judge threw out attempted-kidnapping charges Thursday against three members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation who were arrested for their roles in an Elijah McClain protest last summer outside an Aurora police precinct.
In a rare ruling, Judge Leroy Kirby dismissed the Class 3 felony charges against Lillian House, 26, Whitney Lucero, 23, and Joel Northam, 33, following a preliminary hearing that took place March 9 and 16.
Preliminary hearings are conducted to determine whether there is probable cause to support serious charges, and the standard prosecutors must meet is lower than at a trial. In most cases, judges find there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.
“Today’s ruling is a very strong statement that the entire prosecution is flawed,” said attorney Adam Frank, who is representing Lucero.
Neither Aurora police nor the 17th Judicial District Attorney’s Office could immediately be reached for comment. Thursday’s ruling dismissed only the most serious charges against the three defendants, who each still face additional criminal charges.
The three protest leaders were charged in September with attempted kidnapping, inciting a riot and other criminal counts in connection with their actions during a July 3 demonstration outside the police precinct. Attempted kidnapping was the only charge serious enough to warrant a preliminary hearing.
During the summer protest, as many as 600 demonstrators surrounded the police station and some used ropes to tie the doors shut or obstructed exits with furniture. House and other leaders said protesters would not leave the area that night until Aurora police fired two officers involved in the death of McClain, the 23-year-old who died after being stopped by police and injected with ketamine in 2019.
At the preliminary hearing, prosecutors argued that officers felt they could not safely leave the building and were prevented from doing so by barricades. They said, per a confidential informant, that protest leaders supported this effort and participated by finding a rope to give to other protesters so gates could be tied shut.
Defense attorneys attacked the informant’s credibility and the prosecution’s assertion police could not leave, as none tried to exit the building during the event.
“Not only were our clients obviously engaged in political speech protected by the First Amendment, they were engaged in some of the most important political speech our state has seen in decades,” said Frank.
Lucero still faces four felony and misdemeanor charges for allegedly inciting and participating in a riot, among other accusations. House still faces five charges — three felonies and two misdemeanors — in Adams County, as well as 19 additional charges in Arapahoe County for other protests the Party of Socialism and Liberation took part in last summer. Similarly, Northam faces four more charges in Adams County and 19 charges in Arapahoe County.
According to Frank, Judge Kirby also said Thursday that if he had been presented with the protesters’ arrest warrants he would not have signed them, signaling the judge did not believe there was probable cause for any of the charges.
“Our clients were all arrested, taken out of their homes, surrounded while they were driving, taken down to Denver jail and held for eight days in COVID conditions, essentially in solitary confinement,” said Amelia Power, who represents House. “To hear the judge today say there wasn’t even, in his mind, probable cause for that arrest to be made is both heartbreaking in terms of what our clients went through, but also incredibly vindicating.”
“The way our clients have dealt with by the system has been so abusive,” added Josh Landy, the attorney representing Northam. “In dismissing this charge today, the judge was the first person in government to look at the facts of this case and do what he’s obligated to do under the law… it’s the first time they’ve been treated fairly by anyone who is required to treat them fairly in this process.”