For the past five months, the US Department of Justice has been prosecuting a woman after she laughed at Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s Senate confirmation hearing. But last week, a federal court in Washington, DC, dealt a big blow against the case — by forcing a retrial after a jury handed down a conviction.
The case goes back to January, when Sessions was testifying in front of the Senate for his attorney general nomination. At one point, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) said Sessions’s history of “treating all Americans equally under the law is clear and well-documented.” Given that Sessions has a long history of opposing the equal treatment of all Americans under the law (from his opposition to voting rights laws to LGBTQ rights), Code Pink activist Desiree Fairooz apparently found the comment funny and laughed out loud.
Police moved in to arrest Fairooz, apparently seeing her laugh as disruptive. It could have all ended there as a big misunderstanding, with an apology and Fairooz’s release.
Instead, federal prosecutors pursued charges, arguing, Ryan Reilly wrote at HuffPost, that “the laugh amounted to willful ‘disorderly and disruptive conduct’ intended to ‘impede, disrupt, and disturb the orderly conduct’ of congressional proceedings.” For her part, Fairooz has said the laugh was reflexive — and the laugh is hard to make out in video of the hearings, having no notable impact on Shelby’s delivery of his speech.
In May, however, a jury in a DC court partially agreed with the Justice Department’s argument. They said that they didn’t focus on the moment Fairooz laughed, but rather what happened after she laughed. When a US Capitol Police officer tried to remove her from the hearings for laughing, she allegedly began to loudly protest and appeared to hold up a sign that she had brought to the hearings.
“She did not get convicted for laughing. It was her actions as she was being asked to leave,” the jury foreperson said, according to Reilly at HuffPost. “We did not agree that she should have been removed for laughing.”
But last week, the judge presiding over the case argued that the basis for it all — the laughter that initiated the arrest — was “disconcerting.” And he scheduled a new trial for September.
“The court is concerned about the government’s theory,” Chief Judge Robert Morin said, according to Reilly at HuffPost.
The government can now decide whether it will retry the case. If convicted, Fairooz could face fines and jail time.