Most of the more than two dozen charges against activist Lorenzo Rulli, stemming from six racial justice protests in Pittsburgh this year, will proceed to trial. Rulli appeared in Pittsburgh Municipal Court Friday.
Rulli was a prominent presence both online and in-person during protests this summer. The demonstrations at which he is alleged to have committed crimes include a downtown protest May 30; an East Liberty protest June 1; a downtown protest outside of 941 saloon June 24; a protest outside of Mayor Bill Peduto’s Point Breeze home Aug. 21; a downtown protest Sept. 2; and another downtown protest Sept. 5.
District Judge Dan Butler presided over the six preliminary hearings Friday morning.
The most serious charges were felonies in connection with protests downtown and in East Liberty May 30 and June 1. A felony conspiracy to commit serious bodily harm and two riot charges stemming from those protests will head to trial.
Thousands marched through Downtown and the Lower Hill District May 30 to protest the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis Police officer. Mounted police attempted to disperse the crowd near PPG Paints Arena. KDKA-TV cameraman Ian Smith suffered multiple injuries after he was assaulted near the arena. A police cruiser was set on fire.
Prosecutors argued Friday that Rulli, whose legal name is Shawn Green, encouraged other protesters to attack Smith and torch the police car. Pittsburgh Police Det. Frank Rosato described video footage from KDKA and social media. Rosato testified that the footage was filmed by Rulli and depicts him shouting, “Get that camera man!” before Smith was attacked by protesters.
Ian Smith testified he could not identify the voice directing the assault. Smith said he was kicked and beaten on the ground and his camera equipment was destroyed. Smith testified that some of the equipment was never recovered.
Det. Rosato testified the footage also shows Rulli telling people to get away from the police cruiser moments before it was set on fire. Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Grant Olson argued Rulli knew the car would be set on fire and was complicit in the act.
Allegheny County public defender Lisa Middleman, Rulli’s attorney, argued the footage shows Rulli trying to get other protesters out of harm’s way. Middleman said audio from the Facebook Live clip depicts Rulli telling those attacking Ian Smith to stop.
Middleman objected to the court’s reliance on police depiction of video footage rather than showing the video in the courtroom. “We don’t need a police officer’s impression about events that occurred when you have actual video of the events that occurred. And that I think is very frustrating,” Middleman told reporters outside of Municipal Court Friday.
Judge Butler noted that to bring cases to trial, the prosecution is only responsible for proving that it is 51 percent likely the alleged crime was committed. Police officers testified about video footage in almost all of the hearings Friday.
A riot charge in connection with a June 1 protest in East Liberty was also held for trial Friday. Rulli faces four additional misdemeanors in connection with that protest. Det. Rosato testified that he had reviewed social media footage in addition to footage obtained from KDKA-TV that allegedly depicts Rulli preventing a TV crew from filming protesters damaging property. The footage was not shown in the courtroom.
Misdemeanor and summary charges were held for a protest outside of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s home in Point Breeze on Aug. 21. Rulli livestreamed much of that evening on his Instagram account.
Tensions were high during the fifth hearing of the day Friday regarding charges from a protest near Market Square on Sept. 2. Pittsburgh Police officer Aaron Spangler and Lt. Ray Rippole testified that Rulli prevented officers from providing backup to an unnamed officer who had been knocked off of his bike. The prosecution argued Rulli stood in the way of motorcycle officers trying to assist the officer near Market Square. Middleman argued Rulli was waving his hands and yelling, which, she said, is legal. “This is becoming ridiculous,” Middleman said of the three charges held for trial. It was the fifth hearing of the day.
The final hearing was for an incident downtown at Sienna Mercato. Footage posted to Facebook – that has since been deleted or made private by the poster – showed Lorenzo Rulli and Nique Craft approaching diners at Mercato as protesters marched by. Prosecutors said the footage showed Rulli pounding a table with his fist which resulted in a glass falling from the table and shattering on the floor.
Rulli spent seven days in Allegheny County Jail after he was denied bail in connection with these charges on Sept. 22. As a condition of his release, Rulli is currently on house arrest and undergoing a mental health evaluation. The DA withdrew two summary offenses and a disorderly conduct misdemeanor charge. Judge Butler agreed to drop the remaining charges associated with the Sept. 5 protest on condition that Rulli submit documentation that his mental health evaluation was completed.
Lorenzo Rulli is scheduled to appear for a formal arraignment on the more than 20 remaining charges Dec. 7.