Citizen journalists AJ Redkey and PM Beers had much to celebrate at Max Bloom's Cafe Noir in Fullerton on Friday. Earlier that morning, Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert Knox dismissed the case against them claiming they failed to disperse from a Kelly Thomas verdict protest last year. Police called an unlawful assembly that day but the two used live-streaming technology to film skirmish lines upfront and personal. A jury deadlocked on the misdemeanor charges in March with the OCDA vowing to retry the case.
But that didn't happen, allowing for the festive mood at Max Bloom's. "We're feeling good and lovely," Redkey told the Weekly. "The ball is rolling in justice's direction."
Attorneys for the citizen journalists joined in on the informal lunchtime celebration. "They were never going to take a plea deal because they were not guilty," says Derek Bercher, who represented Beers. "Luckily, the judge put an end to it and didn't allow a retrial. He basically closed the book on what was a colossal waste of prosecution resources, time and energy."
Facing up to six months in jail never deterred Beers and Redkey. They claim plea deals offered up by the OCDA became sweeter each time after the hung jury. Beers says that being a white woman and having a flexible schedule to withstand the court grind allowed her to be more defiant. "I felt like because of the privileges I have, I needed to take it to trial for the people who can't," she says.
Judge Knox made a move back in May and offered Beers and Redkey a deal of his own. He promised to drop the case against the two if they didn't get arrested in Orange County for any reason in the next six months. Redkey and Beers kept quiet about the terms, not wanting to draw attention to themselves. Redkey continued to live-stream protests in OC during that time frame but notably showed that he remained on the sidewalk to play it safe. Court scheduling brought Friday's dismissal a month early.
The case had brought up interesting questions about protests and citizen journalism. Fullerton police reports and the prosecution framed the two not as reporters but activists on the march in defiance of dispersal orders. Redkey and Beers say they felt obligated to document police conduct at tense skirmish lines and where arrests took place. The hung jury and case dismissal didn't allow for a legal precedent to be set on the question of press freedom for citizen journalists, but there are still lessons to be learned.
"It's becoming very established that we have the right to film the police. Law enforcement is very uncomfortable with that," says attorney John Raphling, who represented Redkey. "It's important for people like AJ and [PM] to stand up for that right because there's a push back against it."
Despite all the hassle of being arrested by undercover police in Pasadena for the charge and going through the trial, Redkey says he'd still live-stream the protest the same exact way he did that day. "Even if cops call an unlawful assembly," he says, "We as journalists still need to document the process."
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2