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Why Bragg Dropped Charges Against Most Columbia Student Protesters

Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, last week dropped most of the 46 cases against pro-Palestinian demonstrators charged in the April 30 siege of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University because prosecutors had little proof that the cases would stand up at trial.

There was limited video footage of what took place inside the campus building, Doug Cohen, a spokesman for the district attorney, said in a statement. The protesters wore masks and covered security cameras, preventing prosecutors from identifying those who had barricaded the doors and smashed chairs, desks and windows during the 17-hour occupation.

The district attorney announced the decision to drop 31 of the 46 cases during a court hearing on Thursday. Apart from trespassing, a misdemeanor, proving any other criminal charges would be “extremely difficult,” Mr. Cohen said.

For similar reasons, prosecutors also dismissed charges against nine of the 22 students and staff members at City College who were arrested inside a campus building and charged with burglary during a protest that took place on the same night as the arrests at Hamilton Hall.

Six other people who were arrested outside the building still face criminal charges: Five were charged with second-degree assault, a felony, and another was charged with criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree, a misdemeanor.

The protests on April 30 grew out of a weekslong encampment on Columbia’s South Lawn that ignited similar demonstrations at college campuses across the country and resulted in hundreds of arrests. As the academic year drew to a close, protesters called on Columbia to divest from Israel, among other demands, sometimes clashing with counterprotesters or with the police.

The university’s decision to call in the Police Department to clear Hamilton Hall was met with both outrage and praise. Mayor Eric Adams blamed the occupation on “outside agitators” who he said had tried to “radicalize” otherwise peaceful students. Most of the 282 people who were arrested at Columbia and City College were students or university staff members; most were issued summonses, and the rest were criminally charged, mainly with trespassing.

All the protesters whose cases were dropped were affiliated with the schools, Mr. Cohen said. Both schools may still discipline those whose criminal cases were dismissed, and cases involving more serious charges, including assaults on police officers, are continuing, Mr. Cohen said.

In New York City, it is common for prosecutors to drop cases against protesters charged with low-level offenses during mass arrests. Under Cyrus Vance Jr., the former Manhattan district attorney, 680 cases against the 732 people arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge during the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011 were dropped. Roughly 5,000 police summonses issued during the citywide Black Lives Matter marches in 2020 were also dismissed under Mr. Vance.

Mr. Bragg, a Democrat who took office in 2022 and recently won a criminal case against former President Donald J. Trump, has focused his efforts on prosecuting more serious crimes. During the first week of his tenure, he faced criticism when he instructed prosecutors to ask judges for jail or prison time only for serious offenses such as murder, sexual assault and major financial crimes, unless the law required otherwise. (He revised the policy the next month.)

Martin R. Stolar, a Manhattan lawyer and former president of the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, who has defended protesters for 50 years, said Mr. Bragg’s decision last week was expected, calling it “a wise use of prosecutorial resources.”

The protesters at Columbia and City College, most of them students, “weren’t throwing bombs, they weren’t shooting people, they weren’t robbing people, they weren’t dealing drugs,” Mr. Stolar said.

“When you evaluate that against the backdrop of what these arrests were, it doesn’t qualify as serious crime,” he added, “You have to pick and choose.”

Local politicians who have been critical of campus protesters and have spoken publicly about their support for Israel acknowledged the difficulty of proving charges in the cases that were dismissed. In a radio interview on Friday, Mayor Adams, a Democrat, said he respected the district attorney’s decision. Representative Jerrold Nadler, also a Democrat and the longest-serving Jewish member of the House of Representatives, said he had “the uttermost faith in D.A. Bragg.”

“The reality is, many of the cases related to the protests at Columbia University are difficult to prosecute due to a lack of evidence, and the vast majority involved first-time offenders,” Mr. Nadler said in a statement. “I stand by his judgment in this matter.”

But dozens of student protesters who appeared in court on Thursday were not satisfied with Mr. Bragg’s decision, calling on him to dismiss all the cases. Some other students who had been charged, speaking at a news conference after the hearing, said they had received offers from prosecutors to dismiss their cases so long as they were not rearrested within six months. Most had rejected those deals, they said, arguing that the cases should have been dismissed outright.

Julian Roberts-Grmela contributed reporting.

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