An Alabama woman was found guilty on a federal civil disorder charge Wednesday following a rare federal-court trial for a participant in last year’s racial justice protests.
After several hours of deliberations, a jury in Mobile convicted Tia Pugh, 22, of the felony charge for smashing a local police cruiser’s window with a bat during a demonstration held just six days after the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police sparked nationwide outrage.
“We’re very disappointed and even dismayed by the verdict and think it’s contrary to the evidence,” Pugh’s defense attorney, Gordon Armstrong, said in an interview. “Evidently, the jury saw it differently and we have to accept that.”
The case was one of dozens filed by the Justice Department under Attorney General Bill Barr after President Donald Trump called for an aggressive federal law enforcement response to unrest stemming from Floyd’s death.
In recent months, under the new Biden administration, Pugh’s case attracted the attention of officials at Justice Department headquarters because of a broad challenge she brought to the half-century-old statute.
Lawyers for Pugh, in cooperation with attorneys across the country defending against similar charges arising from last year’s unrest, argued that the 1968 law — formally called the “Civil Obedience Act” — has racist roots. The defense lawyers also pointed to other alleged flaws, such as the potential impact on First Amendment-protected activity like lawful demonstrations. They also said the measure lacks a sufficient connection to federal authority over interstate commerce.
Prosecutors, including one dispatched from Washington, defended the statute. They also noted that while it was not commonly used in recent decades, it is now being used to prosecute scores of suspects in the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
U.S. District Court Judge Terry Moorer ruled the law was a valid exercise of congressional power, and he declined to wade into the complex history of the measure, which was passed as part of the broader Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Pugh faces up to five years in prison on the charge, although she will likely be sentenced according to federal guidelines that typically call for far less than the maximum.
Last week, defense lawyers for Pugh — who is Black — asked for a delay in the trial because of the small number of minorities in the roster of jurors assembled for the case. However, Moorer — Trump’s first Black appointee to the federal bench — allowed the trial to go forward.
The jury that was selected consisted of 10 white people and 2 Black people, Armstrong said.
Moorer set sentencing for Aug. 19, but said Pugh can remain free on bond until that date. Prosecutors asked that she be placed back on GPS tracking, but the judge declined.
Pugh still faces two state court charges related to her conduct at the same demonstration last May: inciting a riot and criminal mischief.
At least two other defendants charged in federal cases stemming from last year's protests have gone to trial. Last November, a jury in San Diego found Rudy Alvarez of guilty of pointing a laser at a police helicopter during unrest in June. He was later sentenced ti fiuve years probation.
Earlier this month, another San Diego federal jury convicted Zachary Karas of possession of molotov cocktails during a protest in La Mesa, last May. He's set to be sentenced in August.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Tia Pugh's trial is among the first in federal court arising from last year's racial-justice protests. There have been at least two others.