Charges have been dropped against a Georgia senator and 14 other protesters who were arrested at a November event at the Capitol.
The cases were dismissed Thursday.
Capitol Police arrested state Sen. Nikema Williams, an Atlanta Democrat, on Nov. 13 along with 14 metro area residents during a protest in the days following last year’s closely contested gubernatorial election.
A local Black Lives Matter group organized the “Count Every Vote” event to pressure state officials to ensure all absentee and provisional ballots were tallied in the governor’s race between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams.
Several lawsuits were filed in the days after the election, requesting the courts to require counties to count last-minute absentee and provisional ballots, with Abrams’ supporters hoping she would gain enough votes to force Kemp into a runoff. She was unable to close the gap enough, and the Republican won the election.
Williams’ attorney, David Dreyer, a Democratic state representative from Atlanta, called the arrest an “affront to the First Amendment.”
“The charges should have never been brought in the first place, and she never should have been arrested,” he said.
Williams, who also is the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, was charged with obstruction and disrupting the General Assembly. The other 14 protesters were charged with disrupting the General Assembly.
In a court filing, Cobb County Solicitor General Barry Morgan said that while there was probable cause for Williams’ arrest, his office decided not to prosecute her.
“While the Capitol Police were professional and correctly did their job, we must also balance the need for public safety in such an important public forum with the inviolable right to free speech and protest, especially of the government,” Morgan wrote in the dismissal. “Our decision here does not reflect condemnation of that arrest decision; this decision is a choice to let the arrest itself serve as punishment for the crime.”
Williams on Saturday said even though her charges have been dropped, “this is far from over.”
“Every American has a right to free speech without fear of ‘punishment,’’” she said. “We are considering a civil suit against the Capitol Police to make sure no one has to go through what I did on November 13th.”
Fulton County Solicitor General Keith E. Gammage handled the cases against the other protesters.
“My trial and appellate team reviewed the facts and the evidence, and determined that in our judgment we would not be able to prove the offense beyond a reasonable doubt,” Gammage said. “Because of that decision, based on the facts and evidence, we did not formally bring charges.”
Under Georgia law, legislators are “free from arrest during sessions of the General Assembly” except for charges of treason, felonies or breach of the peace. The arrests happened on the first of a five-day special session of the Legislature.
Authorities said at the time that the demonstration was broken up after several warnings because of rules that prohibit chanting or yelling while lawmakers are in session.
Williams’ arrest made national headlines at the time, with the senator saying she felt she was targeted for standing with protesters.
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