The Capitol riot trial for Proud Boys leaders promised to be a historic showcase for some of the most compelling evidence of an alleged conspiracy by right-wing extremists to prevent the transfer of presidential power after the 2020 election.
A month after the trial, there were a lot of fireworks, but mostly when the jury wasn’t in court.
Lawyers representing the five Proud Boys accused of seditious conspiracy repeatedly sparred with U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly during breaks in testimony. At least 10 times these lawyers argued in vain for him to overturn the judgment.
The judge regularly berates the lawyers for interrupting him and has threatened to hold them in contempt if he continues. Two defense attorneys at one point floated the idea of withdrawing from the case if Kelly did not rule in her favor on evidentiary matters.
The spate of fighting has disrupted proceedings in federal court, where the Capitol can be seen from a few windows away. On a recent day in court, defense attorney Norm Pattis likened the trial to visiting “Gilligan’s Island,” the title and setting of the 1960s sitcom about the crew and passengers of a shipwreck.
“It was supposed to be a three-hour tour, and people were stuck together for an endless amount of time as they sorted out their interpersonal struggles,” Pattis joked.
The tension in the courtroom reflects the high stakes for the Justice Department and the defendants. It is one of the most serious cases to have emerged from the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021, and former Proud Boys national president Enrique Tarrio is perhaps the most high-profile person to be charged so far in the attack.
Proud Boys face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of seditious conspiracy. Acquittals from the rarely used indictment – which strikes at the heart of what prosecutors say happened that day – would be a setback in the government’s Jan. 6 investigation, which continues to escalate two years later.
Tarrio and four lieutenants are accused of participating in a week-long conspiracy to keep Democrat Joe Biden out of the White House after he defeated then-President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. a coordinated attack on the Capitol alongside hundreds of other Trump supporters.
Defense attorneys say there is no evidence that the Proud Boys conspired to attack the Capitol and prevent Congress from certifying the January 6 Electoral College vote. Lawyers say prosecutors are mischaracterizing online bellicose banter as a violent conspiracy. They tried unsuccessfully to move the trial out of Washington, arguing that there was no way their clients could get a fair trial before a District of Columbia jury.
The Proud Boys trial is set to last several weeks longer than last year’s historic trial for the leaders and members of the Oath Keepers group, who were charged in a separate case on Jan.
In November, a jury convicted Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and another seditious conspiracy leader after three days of jury selection, 26 days of testimony and two days of closing arguments. A separate trial involving members of the Oath Keepers – who face a range of charges but not seditious conspiracy – also began this month.
Jury selection for the Proud Boys case lasted 12 days. After the trial’s opening remarks on Jan. 12, jurors heard 16 days of testimony through Friday. Prosecutors are expected to close the case in late February or early March, before the defense team begins to present testimony.
A dozen of the first 14 witnesses for the prosecution in the Proud Boys trial were FBI agents and other law enforcement officials. Jurors also heard testimony from a former member of the Proud Boys who entered into a plea deal with prosecutors and a British documentary filmmaker who was incorporated into the Proud Boys on Jan. 6.
Jurors are often left waiting in the wings while defense attorneys contest the admissibility of the evidence. In one such exchange, Pattis asked Kelly to reconsider a decision allowing prosecutors to introduce posts from social media platform Parler.
“We’re offering you a lifeline here because we think you screwed up,” Pattis told the judge.
“Well, I’m offering you the salvation of obeying my order,” Kelly replied.
Kelly frequently berated defense attorneys for interrupting him and talking about him, warning that he might find them contemptible. At one point, attorney Nicholas Smith interrupted the judge while the judge chastised him for an earlier interruption.
One of Tarrio’s lawyers asked for a mistrial after a witness said Tarrio had burned a Black Lives Matter banner at a protest in Washington during a demonstration by Trump supporters in December 2020.
Tarrio was arrested two days before the January 6 riot, accused of vandalizing the banner and forced to leave the city. Kelly decided that prosecutors could discuss the vandalism, but not specific details about the banner. Prosecutors allege that Tarrio remained in charge of the Proud Boys on January 6, although he was not there.
Carmen Hernandez, a lawyer for Proud Boys chapter leader Zachary Rehl, has repeatedly called for mistrials, including when she accused a prosecutor of using inflammatory and misleading claims in her opening statement. Hernandez asked for a mistrial after jurors viewed violent videos of the Proud Boys’ street fights at rallies prior to Jan. 6.
“Not a day would go by in this trial without a motion for a mistrial,” said Kelly, who denied her request.
At least one juror may have sent a signal about the slow pace of the trial.
J. Daniel Hull, one of Biggs’ attorneys, told the judge on Jan. 19 that he saw a juror napping that morning. In response, the judge told the lawyers that “focusing your presentations can help in this matter.”
The rancor began even before the jury was sworn in.
The day before the trial began, Hernandez said she felt compelled to withdraw from the case if the judge allowed prosecutors to show a certain video as evidence. Smith, who represents Proud Boys leader Ethan Nordean, followed with a similar comment about withdrawing if the judge does not rule in her favor on an evidentiary matter.
Pattis, a Connecticut attorney representing Proud Boys organizer Joe Biggs, was briefly removed from the case after a judge in his home state suspended his license to practice law for six months. The decision stemmed from Pattis’ handling of confidential documents during his representation of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in a civil lawsuit. Kelly allowed Pattis back on trial after opening statements after an appeals court delayed her suspension.
The judge did not bring jurors into court on Feb. 6 so that lawyers could argue about the relevance of the messages the Proud Boys posted on the Telegram platform. Pattis warned that the Telegram evidence alone could add two weeks to the trial “if we’re not careful”.
“I jokingly told my office that I hope to be home by Easter today at the rate things are going,” added Pattis.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Capitol Riot at https://apnews.com/hub/capitol-siege