Felony charges against Denver anti-racist organizers withdrawn

The withdrawal of felony charges against Terrance Roberts, Joel Northam, and Lillian House comes nearly three weeks after a judge dismissed kidnapping charges against them. The trio were actively involved in organizing protests seeking justice for Elijah McClain

April 06, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
Placards at a demonstration at Washington D.C., on September 20, 2020, in solidarity with the three arrested activists of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. Photo: PSL DC via Twitter

Multiple charges against three activists from Denver, Colorado, who were arrested for organizing protests seeking justice for Elijah McClain, have been withdrawn by the district attorney. The decision to dismiss six counts of felony in Arapahoe County against Terrance Roberts, Joel Northam, and Lillian House was taken by the office of the 18th judicial district attorney on Sunday, April 4.

District attorney John Keller’s office confirmed in a statement released on Monday that the charges were dismissed after the prosecution moved to dismiss all major felony charges, along with major misdemeanor charges. The move comes after the recent withdrawal of kidnapping charges against them by a local judge.

The three activists, members of the local chapter of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), were among the six arrested and charged last year for organizing a protest at the Aurora police station near Denver in June and July 2020. They were demanding justice for the 2019 custodial death of Elijah McClain and other victims of police violence.

The protests were part of a countrywide movement against racism and police violence, sparked by the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. The police alleged that the protesters barricaded the precinct office, supposedly “trapping” several officers inside the building for “several hours.”

The three activists and their defense attorney, Joshua Landy, have consistently asserted that the investigation was biased against the protesters and called it “selective prosecution” and a “complete violation of free speech, an overstep of government power and of the use of police authority to shut down legitimate speech.”

Earlier charges which came from both Arapahoe County and Adams County included theft and attempted kidnapping. They were also arrested for over a week in September 2020 and subsequently released on bail.

The National Committee for Justice in Denver, a campaign launched in January to support the legal defense of the activists, released a statement celebrating the withdrawal of the charges. While acknowledging the move as a “meaningful step towards justice,” the statement also argued that “the downgrading of this political prosecution is not enough.”

In the statement, the campaign added that “[continuing] to force these peaceful protesters through a grueling court process on charges that could still carry years in jail is an abuse of the court system and an affront to the community of Aurora which was justified in protesting for justice for Elijah McClain.”

The revised charges now include misdemeanor — four counts against Lillian House, six counts against Joel Northam and one against Terrance Roberts. These and other existing felony cases against the three in Adams County could carry a maximum prison sentence of 13.5 years between them. The National Committee for Justice in Denver continues to reiterate their stand that all charges be dropped against them.

“We continue to call on both prosecuting District Attorneys John Kellner and Brian Mason (of Adams County) to drop ALL charges against the leaders of the peaceful protests for justice for Elijah McClain…any continuation of the criminal prosecution perpetuates this miscarriage of justice.”

23-year-old Elijah McClain was killed on August 30, 2019 while he was being arrested, based on a phone call which accused him of looking “sketchy.” Three police officers were involved in the incident. McClain was reportedly pinned down by the officers, with one putting him in a chokehold for nearly 15 minutes, and was administered a sedative by paramedics, both of which caused his death.

The body cameras of the officers were not working at the time of the arrest, while a police department report alleged without basis that McClain tried to reach for one of their guns. But the cameras did audio record the incident, with McClain heard saying “I can’t breathe” repeatedly and vomiting several times while being put in a chokehold.

McClain’s family and community members have been struggling ever since to secure justice, but local authorities have refused to charge the three police officers or the paramedic who administered the sedative. Demonstrations were held since at least November 2019, with the movement receiving countrywide attention after the George Floyd protests spread across the country.

“The protests successfully compelled important investigations which have confirmed serious wrongdoing in the death of Elijah McClain and failures of accountability at multiple levels within APD (Aurora Police Department) and the city leadership,” the statement by National Committee for Justice in Denver added. “It is the embarrassment caused by these protests — not the commission of any crimes — which triggered this retaliatory prosecution.”

The three activists have reiterated their commitment to secure justice for McClain and continue their struggle for racial justice, even as they continue to face prosecution and attend court hearings.