Judges Keep Capitol Riot Tria 07/06 06:44
Personal connections of prospective jurors to the Jan. 6 riot in Washington,
D.C., highlight the challenge facing judges and attorneys in choosing impartial
jurors to decide the hundreds of criminal cases stemming from the insurrection
--- especially as lawmakers hold high-profile public hearings on the
insurrection less than a mile from the courthouse.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- For some of the Washington, D.C., residents who reported
for jury duty last month, a pro-Trump mob's assault on the U.S. Capitol felt
like a personal attack.
Ahead of a trial for a Michigan man charged in the riot, one prospective
juror said a police officer injured during the melee is a close friend. Another
has friends who are congressional staffers or journalists who worked at the
Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. A woman whose boyfriend lived near the Capitol
recalled the terror she felt that day.
None of them served on the federal jury that swiftly convicted Anthony
Robert Williams of storming the Capitol to obstruct Congress from certifying
Joe Biden's 2020 presidential electoral victory.
But their personal connections to the riot highlight the challenge facing
judges and attorneys in choosing impartial jurors in Washington to decide the
hundreds of criminal cases stemming from the insurrection --- especially as
lawmakers hold high-profile public hearings on the insurrection less than a
mile from the courthouse.
One of the most serious cases brought by the Justice Department in the
Capitol attack has already been delayed after defense attorneys argued that
their clients couldn't get a fair trial in the midst of televised hearings by
the House committee investigating the riot.
And a growing number of defendants are pushing to have their trials moved
out of Washington, saying the outcome of the first trials proves that the odds
are unfairly stacked against Jan. 6 defendants in the nation's capital.
"D.C. is a city that, as a whole, feels that it has been the victim of a
crime," attorneys in two cases against members and associates of the far-right
Oath Keepers extremist group wrote in court papers seeking to have their trials
moved to Virginia.
Prosecutors and judges see no evidence that Capitol rioters can't get a fair
trial in the district and believe the process of weeding out biased jurors is
working. Judges presiding over Jan. 6 cases have consistently rejected requests
to move trials, saying the capital has plenty of residents who can serve as
Prosecutors' unblemished record so far in jury trials for Jan. 6 cases may
speak to the strength of the evidence against the rioters, many of whom were
captured on camera storming the Capitol and even bragged about their actions on
It's the latest in a string of long-shot legal gambits from defendants
charged with crimes ranging from low-level misdemeanors to felony seditious
conspiracy. Already more than 300 people across the U.S. have pleaded guilty to
crimes stemming from the deadly riot. Collectively, 72 jurors have unanimously
convicted six Jan. 6 defendants of all 35 counts in their indictments.
The federal court in Washington -- where all the Jan. 6 cases are being
heard -- has seen plenty of politically charged trials, including those for
former Mayor Marion Barry, Iran-Contra figure Oliver North and ex-Trump adviser
Roger Stone, prosecutors note.
It's 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 attorneys
even though a large number of people in the city were impacted by the attack,
which killed three people and wounded more than 260 others.
If Williams, the Jan. 6 defendant, had had his way, his trial would have
been held in his native Michigan. His lawyers argued that inflammatory media
coverage of the Capitol attack tainted a jury pool that already was predisposed
to view him as somebody who victimized them.
Chief Judge Beryl Howell denied Williams' request for a change of trial
venue before jury selection started on June 27. One by one, the judge
questioned 49 prospective jurors before seating 12 jurors and two alternates.
Howell disqualified several prospective jurors after questioning them about
their personal connections or strong feelings about the events of Jan. 6. The
judge asked a woman if her friendship with an officer whose ribs were 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 their friends who work at the Capitol.
"It would be very difficult to separate those," he said before Howell
Howell also disqualified a woman who described herself as "very left biased"
and a former New York City resident who said his "deep-rooted" dislike for
former President Donald Trump predates his White House years.
The jurors picked 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 any strong opinions about Jan. 6.
More than three dozen Capitol riot defendants have asked to have their
trials moved out of Washington, including at least nine who filed their
requests in June. None has succeeded so far.
In denying one such request, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said she
agreed with prosecutors that there is no reason to believe that Washington's
entire population was so affected by the events of Jan. 6 that it can't seat an
"In any U.S. jurisdiction, most prospective jurors will have heard about the
events of January 6, and many will have various disqualifying biases," she
Before a jury convicted retired New York City police officer Thomas Webster
of assaulting a Capitol police officer during the riot, Webster's lawyer said a
survey of Washington residents found that 84% believe Jan. 6 defendants were
trying to overturn the 2020 election results and keep Trump, a Republican, in
power. The defense attorney, James Monroe, also noted that 92% of Washington
residents voted for Biden, a Democrat.
"Given the lopsided political makeup of the District, it is impossible to
panel a jury that is not entirely comprised of people preordained to find
Webster -- a presumed Trump supporter -- guilty," Monroe wrote.
U.S District Judge Amit Mehta rejected the motion, saying the survey shows
that nearly half of the Washington residents polled "would keep an open mind in
the context of a specific case."
Members of the Oath Keepers also failed to persuade Mehta to move their
trial on seditious conspiracy charges from Washington to Alexandria, Virginia.
Their lawyers noted that every Jan. 6 case tried before a jury in Washington
has resulted in a conviction.
"That is true, but guilty verdicts are hardly unusual in federal criminal
prosecutions," Mehta wrote. "The mere existence of other guilty verdicts does
not mean that the jury pool is inherently tainted."
Williams' trial was the first for a Jan. 6 case since a House committee
began holding hearings on the Capitol riot, which drew millions of TV 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 asked for his client's trial to be moved to another
"The Committee has spoon fed to the entire nation a precisely choreographed
rendition of January 6th defendants as ?insurrectionists' and murderous
orchestrators of an attempted coup," Kiyonaga wrote.
A trial was scheduled to start in August for several members of the
far-right Proud Boys extremist group charged with seditious conspiracy and
accused of plotting to forcibly oppose the lawful transfer of presidential
power on Jan. 6.
But U.S. 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 in the midst of the House committee hearings.
Defense attorney Carmen Hernandez also cited "non-stop prejudicial
publicity" from the House committee hearings as grounds for moving the Proud
Boys trial to another district, but the judge hasn't ruled on that yet.