Judges Hold D.C. Capitol Riot Trials Amid Bias Claims

WASHINGTON (AP) — For some of the Washington, DC, residents who appeared on the jury last month, the attack by a pro-Trump mob on the U.S. Capitol felt like a personal attack.

Ahead of the trial of a Michigan man charged in the riots, a potential juror said a police officer injured during the melee is a close friend. Another has friends who are congressional staffers or journalists who worked on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021. A woman whose boyfriend lived near the Capitol recalled the terror she felt that day.

None of them were part of the federal jury that quickly convicted Anthony Robert Williams of storming the Capitol to prevent Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral victory.

But his personal connections to the riots highlight the challenge judges and lawyers face in choosing impartial juries in Washington to decide the hundreds of criminal cases stemming from the insurrection, especially when legislators hold high-profile public hearings on the insurgency less than a mile from the courthouse.

One of the most serious cases. The Justice Department’s filing in the Capitol attack has already been delayed after defense attorneys argued their clients couldn’t get a fair trial amid televised hearings by the House committee investigating the riots.

And a growing number of defendants are pushing to have their trials moved out of DC, saying the outcome of the first trials shows the odds are unfairly stacked against the January 6 defendants in the capital of the city. nation.

“DC is a city that generally feels like it has been the victim of a crime,” lawyers in two cases against members and associates of the far-right extremist group Oath Keepers wrote in court documents seeking to have their trials postponed. to virginia

Prosecutors and judges see no evidence that the rioters on Capitol Hill cannot get a fair trial in DC and believe that the process of eliminating biased jurors is working. The judges who presided over the Jan. 6 cases have consistently rejected requests to postpone the trials, saying the capital has plenty of residents who can serve as fair jurors.

Prosecutors’ unblemished record thus far in jury trials in the Jan. 6 cases can speak to the strength of the evidence against the rioters, many of whom were caught on camera storming the Capitol and even boasting about their actions on social networks.

It is the latest in a series of risky legal tactics by those accused of crimes ranging from misdemeanors to felony seditious conspiracy. Already more than 300 people in the US have pleaded guilty to crimes stemming from the riots. Collectively, 72 jurors have unanimously convicted six of the January 6 defendants of the 35 counts in their indictments.

The federal court in Washington, where all of the January 6 cases are being heard, has seen many politically charged trials, including those of former DC Mayor Marion Barry, Iran-Contra figure Oliver North and former Trump adviser Roger Stone, prosecutors point out. .

It is exceptionally rare for judges to agree to move trials to a different location, even in the most high-profile cases. Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, for example, was tried in Boston over the objections of his lawyers despite the fact that a large number of people in the city were affected by the attack that killed three people and wounded to more than 260.

If the January 6 defendant, Anthony Robert Williams, had had his way, his trial would have been held in his native Michigan. His attorneys argued that incendiary media coverage of the Capitol attack tainted a group of jurors already predisposed to view Williams as someone who victimized them.

Chief Judge Beryl Howell denied Williams’ request to change the trial location before jury selection began June 27. One by one, the judge questioned 49 prospective jurors before seating 12 jurors and two alternates.

Howell disqualified several potential jurors after questioning them about their personal connections or strong feelings about the events of January 6. The judge asked a woman if her friendship with an officer who had his ribs broken during the riot would prevent her from being fair and impartial.

“My Christianity says ‘No,’ but my feelings say ‘Yes,’” the woman replied.

A man married to a USA Today reporter said Jan. 6 is a frequent topic of discussion among his friends who work on Capitol Hill.

“It would be very difficult to separate them,” he said before Howell excused him.

Howell also called out a woman who described herself as “very skewed to the left” and a former New York City resident who said her “deep-seated” distaste for former President Donald Trump predates her years in office. the White House.

Jurors chosen for Williams’ trial included a NASA engineer, a moving company employee, a paralegal, a Wall Street regulator and a former State Department employee. None of them expressed strong opinions about January 6.

More than three dozen Capitol riot defendants have requested that their trials be moved out of Washington, including at least nine who filed their requests in June. None have been successful so far.

In denying one such request, US District Judge Tanya Chutkan said she agreed with prosecutors that there is no reason to believe that the entire population of Washington was so affected by the events of January 6 that they cannot form part of an impartial panel.

“In any US jurisdiction, most potential jurors will have been made aware of the events of January 6, and many will have various disqualifying biases,” he wrote.

Before a jury convicted retired New York City police officer Thomas Webster of assaulting a Capitol police officer during the riots, Webster’s attorney said a survey of Washington residents found the 84% believe the Jan. 6 defendants were trying to overturn the 2020 election results and keep Trump. In power. Defense attorney James Monroe also noted that 92% of Washington residents voted for Biden.

“Given the lopsided political makeup of the District, it is impossible to assemble a jury that is not composed entirely of individuals predestined to find Webster, a suspected Trump supporter, guilty,” Monroe wrote.

US District Judge Amit Mehta denied the motion, saying the poll shows nearly half of Washington residents surveyed “would keep an open mind in the context of a specific case.”

Members of the Oath Keepers also failed to persuade Mehta to move his trial on seditious conspiracy charges from Washington to Alexandria, Virginia. His lawyers pointed out that every Jan. 6 case tried before a jury in Washington resulted in a conviction.

“That is true, but guilty verdicts are not unusual in federal criminal proceedings,” Mehta wrote. “The mere existence of other guilty verdicts does not mean that the jury is inherently tainted.”

Williams’ trial was the first in a Jan. 6 case since a House committee began holding hearings on the Capitol riots, which drew millions of viewers.

Defense attorney John Kiyonaga, who represents Capitol riot defendant Robert Morss, said the House committee hearings have “poisoned” the jury pool in Washington. Kiyonaga has requested that his client’s trial be moved to another district.

“The Committee has fed the entire nation a precisely choreographed performance of the January 6 defendants as ‘insurgents’ and murderous orchestrators of a coup attempt,” Kiyonaga wrote.

A trial was scheduled to begin in August for several members of the far-right extremist group Proud Boys accused of seditious conspiracy and accused of conspiring to forcibly oppose the legal transfer of presidential power on January 6.

But US District Judge Timothy Kelly agreed to move the trial to December after lawyers for some Proud Boys members argued they couldn’t pick an impartial jury amid House committee hearings.

Defense attorney Carmen Hernandez also cited “continued damaging publicity” from the House committee hearings as reason to move the Proud Boys trial to another district, but the judge has yet to rule on that.


Associated Press writer Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston contributed to this report.



For full coverage of the January 6 hearings, go to https://www.apnews.com/capitol-site.


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