Jury pool for first Capitol riot trial still stung by attack
By Katelyn Polantz, Hannah Rabinowitz and Holmes Lybrand, CNN
The jury selection for the first January 6 trial has revealed how shaken Washington residents were watching Trump supporters attack the US Capitol last year — and how that is making it impossible for some to serve on Capitol riot defendants’ juries now.
“I live in this city. I wanted to know what happened,” the first juror questioned on Monday said, describing how he followed news coverage after the attack.
The situation reveals how the insurrection affected people who live in the city, even if their personal routines were not disrupted that week. It also highlights one of the concerns that some of the more than 700 federal criminal defendants have about court proceedings taking place within view of the Capitol.
The federal trial court in Washington questioned 34 potential jurors on Monday, waving through 24 to another round. Yet so far nine of them have been dismissed from serving on the jury, nearly all because their feelings about the January 6 attackers were so strong.
The process of seating a jury is more than halfway through for the case against Guy Reffitt, a Texas father who’s a member of a right-wing anti-government group. Prosecutors could begin making their opening statement as early as Tuesday.
Reffitt is accused of taking a gun to the Capitol, interfering with two police officers outside the building and threatening his children when he returned home. He is contesting five charges at trial.
While Reffitt’s defense lawyer previously expressed concern with the jury’s ability to be impartial, it appears the court will be able to find enough jurors who live in DC whom the judge will allow under the law.
The judge, Dabney Friedrich, made clear Monday morning that jurors who were exposed to January 6 news coverage or had strong opinions about it wouldn’t be thrown out of the pool immediately.
Instead, she questioned many at length about their familiarity with the defendant’s case — nearly all said they had never heard of Reffitt — along with their consumption of media coverage about the attack and ability to follow the court’s directions to weigh the facts.
Several potential jurors who will return to court Tuesday said they had been following at least some news coverage initially of January 6, and many said they had strong political opinions but could look at the evidence impartially.
Four in the jury pool noted that one January 6 defendant they could identify was Jacob Chansley — “the guy with horns,” one said — also known as the “QAnon Shaman.” Chansley almost immediately became one of the most viral images of the attack. He did not go to trial, instead pleading guilty for his role in the attack and receiving a sentence of more than three years in prison.
‘An attack on my home’
Several potential jurors on Monday spoke passionately about their fear during the attack on the Capitol and their disgust toward its perpetrators. Some said outright that they could not be impartial toward Reffitt.
“I felt like it was an attack on my home. … It was a very scary time,” one potential juror, his voice shaking, told the court.
The judge noted the juror was “starting from a place where he feels so clearly, visibly impacted from the events” and excused him from service, noting how emotional he appeared in the courtroom.
One potential juror identified himself as a lobbyist who was still in touch with his former boss, a sitting member of Congress, and that earlier in his career he had given tours of the Capitol as a congressional page. “I have a lot of reverence” for the building, he told the judge. He remained in the jury pool.
One man, who did not remain in the jury pool, went near the Capitol on January 6.
“I saw it on the news, and it was so close to my apartment that I wanted to see what was going on,” the man said.
A woman who was later dismissed said she worked at the Library of Congress and had some employees who were evacuated from the office and others who were working from home near the Capitol that day.
“Everybody who went in there is already guilty,” another man said. “They should be prosecuted to the max.” He was dismissed from the jury pool.
On Monday, only a few of the potential jurors said they didn’t follow much at all about January 6 in the news.
One potential juror said he wasn’t reading about it, because he had seen in studies that “not paying attention to the news increases happiness,” he said.
Requests to move trials
Reffitt had asked unsuccessfully in September for his trial to be moved to his home state of Texas because of how many DC residents were affected by the riot. His lawyer also noted that intense media coverage could sway potential jurors’ opinions.
Friedrich denied the request, noting that only the immediate area around the Capitol had been affected and much of the news coverage was from national outlets.
It’s not common for trials to be moved just because they take place in the same location as a newsworthy event.
Several other January 6 defendants have also requested that their cases be moved outside of Washington but have not won those arguments so far. They’ve argued in part that because of the coverage of that day, the city and its people have a built-in prejudice.
The District of Columbia also votes heavily for Democrats in presidential elections, and jury pools here often have a large number of attorneys and federal government employees.
In Reffitt’s jury pool so far, a handful were attorneys or identified ties they had to the federal government. One potential juror noted he had family members who were significant political donors and one who was a Trump political appointee. He remained in the jury pool.
Previously, members of the Proud Boys who were arrested on charges related to the riot asked that their trials be moved, arguing that residents of DC were “barraged with propaganda about a ‘White nationalist’ attack” and were “continuously told they were victims of an ‘insurrection,’ ” leading to a bias in the community.
Prosecutors have objected to these requests, arguing that it’s impossible to tell whether a jury would be biased or unbiased before the potential jurors have been thoroughly questioned and examined.
Before facing the new charge of seditious conspiracy, a request by alleged Oath Keeper Thomas Caldwell to transfer his case to Virginia was denied by Judge Amit Mehta in September.
Mehta wrote that Caldwell had “utterly failed to present any evidence of actual bias in the jury pool” and said claims of news coverage biasing people in DC “are based entirely on his own speculation.”
Trials for other January 6 defendants, including accused Proud Boys and Oath Keepers conspirators, are scheduled throughout the rest of this year, but it’s not yet known how many will ultimately go to trial.
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