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A judge in a non-jury trial determined that Providence police officer Jeann Lugo was acting within his authority as an officer when he struck Jennifer Rourke at a protest on June 24, despite being off-duty at the time.

Jeann Lugo at the Garrahy Judicial Complex on July 8, 2022. David DelPoio / Billiards, file

WARWICK, RI (AP) — A Rhode Island police officer accused of punching a political rival at an ab*rtion rights rally was acquitted Wednesday of a misdemeanor, simple assault charge by a judge who said his actions were justified because he was trying to maintain public order.

A judge in a non-jury trial determined that Providence police officer Jeann Lugo was acting within his authority as an officer when he struck Jennifer Rourke at a protest on June 24, despite being off-duty at the time. The man was also punched in a chaotic hand-to-hand combat that was captured on video.

The protest was in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which had provided a constitutional right to ab*rtion since 1973.

Prosecutors say Lugo, who was then the Republican candidate for the state Senate seat, punched Rourke, who was his Democratic opponent. Lugo dropped out of the race the next day. Rourke lost the election to another Republican.

The referee admitted that Lugo hit Rourke, but said he did so after Rourke tried to stop him from trying to intervene in the second altercation.

Lugo left the court without a word, but his lawyer spoke on his behalf.

“First of all, he should never have been arrested. This is the right verdict,” said Daniel Griffin. Griffin said that Lugo was “destroyed” and the whole process “destroyed” him.

Lugo was suspended by the police, and an internal investigation found that he had violated the department’s rules and regulations governing conduct. Colonel-in-Chief Hugh Clements recommended that Lugo lose his job.

A spokesman said in an email that the police department would continue its efforts to release Lugo under the state’s Law Enforcement Bill of Rights process. Griffin said Lugo should keep his job.

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