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Prosecutors tried to throw the book at San Diego protester, activists say it was a message

The San Diego Superior Court is shown on Jan. 3, 2020.
Zoë Meyers
The San Diego Superior Court is shown on Jan. 3, 2020.

A protester in San Diego who had been charged with 19 felonies and initially held on $750,000 bail is now free and acquitted of all charges, but activists worry the case was meant to intimidate protesters.

Denzel Draughn was protesting police brutality in downtown San Diego and was arrested on Aug. 28, 2020. His charges were seen as unusual and severe: 19 felonies for using tear gas on San Diego Police officers and resisting arrest.

RELATED: San Diego Activist Still In Jail, Under $750,000 Bail, A Week After Protest

But now, he’s been found not guilty. Draughn, who is Black, said his jury was all white, and he was surprised by their ruling.

“I didn’t expect white America to be sane, I’ll say that,“ he said. “It wasn’t crazy, but I didn’t expect it from white America.”

RELATED: Judge Lowers Bail For Protester Accused Of Pepper-Spraying Police

Draughn’s attorney told the jury he was acting to defend another protester, who was being punched and kicked by police.

“There was also an assault on a vulnerable protester, he was on the ground and an officer held him from behind, bear hugged him,” Draughn said.

Police charged Draughn with nine felony counts of obstructing an officer and nine felony counts of illegally using tear gas, plus one felony count of possession of tear gas. He was charged nine counts for the first two charges because there were nine officers hit with tear gas, said a police spokesman at the time.

Those charges would normally result in a total bail of $380,000, but police asked for almost double that. His $750,000 bail was on par with kidnapping — normally $500,000 bail; or murder, normally $1 million bail. After Draughn spent more than a week in jail, a judge lowered his bill to $150,000 so he could be released.

Judge Francis Devaney said he was surprised at the bail amount.

"When I saw bail was set at $750,000, I immediately looked at the charges because I didn't think this was a murder, manslaughter, or rape," Devaney said.

The fact that Draughn was charged so severely was meant to send a message, said Anne Rios, a defense attorney not involved in his case.

“It starts to make us wonder whether this bail amount was appropriate or was it simply to punish people,” she said. “I think that has to do with trying to dissuade people from exercising their First Amendment rights, especially when it comes to the protests of last year when people were calling for defunding the police and for Black Lives Matter.“

Prosecutors tried to throw the book at San Diego protester, activists say it was a message

The San Diego County District Attorney’s office and the San Diego Police Department had no comment on the decision.

Draughn said the jury’s ruling reminded him of a quote from Frederick Douglas.

“Without struggle there was no progress, and there was progress made through the verdict today through the struggle that happened,” he said.