BY MARIA E. RECIO
WASHINGTON — Journalist Aaron Cantu, who is originally from McAllen, stood quietly Friday afternoon in D.C. Superior Court with his neatly trimmed goatee in a black suit and white shirt as his attorney entered a plea of “not guilty” to his eight count indictment for allegedly being part of a riot on Inauguration Day.
Cantu’s trial date will not be until Oct. 15, 2018, and he faces more than 70 years in prison.
Cantu, 28, was only indicted May 30, while the more than 200 others charged in the disruptions, conspiracy and destruction of property on Jan. 20 were cited months ago. Cantu is one of two remaining journalists who are still being charged — the cases against others were dropped by prosecutors. In fact, Cantu was the only defendant Friday who had not already been arraigned.
Will Cantu become the face of the 1st Amendment? If so, he was a reluctant one on Friday, saying politely that he could not talk about the case as his attorneys hustled him away from reporters.
There were more than 100 people packed in a second floor courtroom before Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz for the arraignment — part of the contingent of defendants who will be tried in groups for the disruptions to the nation’s capital during protests of President Donald Trump.
The lengthy process Friday involved dozens of defendants and their attorneys picking dates for a trial and hearings leading up to a trial. Cantu’s attorney Chantale Fiebig gave the judge the trial date of Oct. 15, 2018 — one that Cantu selected from the dates offered. He will have a motion hearing April 6, 2018. There will be a status hearing Oct. 27, 2017.
The judge was setting up trial dates with eight defendants on each date she offered. “Clearly we can’t try 215 people at one time,” she said.
The long lead time, according to an exchange with the judge and the prosecutor, is due to the large number of defendants and the controversy over how to distribute information on cellphones seized from the accused by law enforcement on Inauguration Day. “What we have to resolve is how we determine what gets disclosed to the universe,” Leibovitz said.
She ruled that the government has to release cellphone data back to the owner of each mobile device by Aug. 25. According to the government complaint, the rioters were conspiring and communicating by text, chat, phone and email. However, there have been numerous objections to the government’s invasion of privacy that are expected to continue to be part of the case.
Cantú was covering the demonstration as a senior editor for The New Inquiry, an online outlet.
Cantú is currently a staff writer with the Santa Fe Reporter covering criminal justice, education, healthcare and immigration.
The Santa Fe Reporter editor and publisher, Julie Ann Grimm, has stated the publications supports Cantú and the legal matter was disclosed during his recent hiring process.
“We stand behind him,” she said in a piece they released earlier this week.
Monitor staff writer Daniel A. Flores contributed to this report.