First Capitol riot trial opens in D.C.

The impact of the riot on Washington and its residents was evident Monday, as potential jurors described their reactions to the events of Jan. 6 and the massive increase in security after the Capitol takeover.

Several of the potential jurors, who were generally not named in court, struggled with questions about whether they could be impartial in the case in light of the impact the riot had on the city.

“I just think the attacks were just wrong against the government,” one retired woman called for service said. “It was dangerous for everyone who lives in the city. … It was a little horrifying to me.”

One man who was summoned for the jury called the event traumatic.

“It did sort of feel like it was an attack on my home. In a sense, it’s hard to remove myself from that,” he said. “I have family members who live on Capitol Hill and that had troop transports with Army members going by. … There’s definitely some latent fear and alarm that I feel from that day.”

Reffitt’s lawyer, William Welch, asked for the man to be scratched from the jury list, but prosecutors opposed that, noting that he’d at points said that he could be fair and that every defendant should be judged individually. Judge Dabney Friedrich called the issue “a close call” but agreed to remove him “in an abundance of caution,” pointing to his statements about still being fearful and emotional about Jan. 6.

One woman called for the trial said she is regular listener to podcasts and had heard reports about the fallout from Jan. 6 from Julie Kelly, an independent journalist who has portrayed the treatment of Jan. 6 defendants as an unfair form of political retaliation.

“I am somewhat one-sided in terms of the news that I get,” the woman said. She said she missed the riot because she was in Georgia the day before for the Senate runoff there. She did not elaborate on her role.

Neither side objected to her remaining in the jury pool, although both sides will later get the opportunity to strike jurors without the judge’s approval.

During the morning session Monday, Friedrich called in a total of 13 potential jurors for individual questioning about whether they were suitable to serve for the trial and dismissed three of them. Only one man seemed specifically aware of the case against Reffitt, saying that he understood the defendant was accused of bringing a firearm into the Capitol. That juror was among those excused by the judge.

Friedrich began the proceedings Monday by rejecting a motion by media organizations for in-person access to testimony at Reffitt’s trial. Ruling from the bench, Friedrich said the extensive precautions the court has put in place to address coronavirus concerns make it impractical to allow even a single press representative or member of Reffitt’s family to observe the trial directly.

“The costs of the precautionary measures are justified to minimize the chance of a mistrial,” said Friedrich, an appointee of former President Donald Trump. The seating in the ordinary courtroom to be used for the trial has been reassigned to put the jury in the gallery, where they can be socially distanced, while witnesses will testify from the jury box, she said, leaving no feasible place for observers in the courtroom.

Friedrich also said allowing members of the press or public into the courtroom’s well — the area where lawyers and the defendant are seated near the bench — could be a security problem.

“The Marshals Service has expressed security concerns about non-participants sitting in the courtroom well during the trial,” she said.

The court has promised to provide a video and audio feed to adjoining courtrooms and a pair of media rooms. However, lawyers for the media coalition have argued that Supreme Court decisions indicate that is not an adequate substitute for being physically present in the courtroom.

Friedrich disagreed, saying Supreme Court precedent “requires taking every reasonable measure, not every possible measure.” She did say she will permit a media representative in the trial courtroom during opening arguments and “possibly” during closing arguments.

In addition to being the first Jan. 6 defendant to go on trial, Reffitt holds another distinction: the only person known to have been turned in by one of his own children.

Before Reffitt even left his Texas home for the Jan. 6 event, his son Jackson had contacted the FBI to report the extremism exhibited by his father, who is alleged to be a member of a “Three Percenters” militia group. Prosecutors say they intend to play several audio recordings Jackson made on his cell phone of his father following the Jan. 6 attack.

The trial is the first test of the Justice Department’s effort to transform its massive Jan. 6 manhunt — one that officials say has been the most complex investigation in U.S. history — into arguments that will convince a D.C. jury to convict. Prosecutors have spent much of the last year collecting and synthesizing massive troves of evidence, much of it drawn from security camera footage, social media posts, text messages and videos taken by thousands of rioters as they breached the building. Merely organizing that evidence has taken the government months and led to protracted delays.

In the meantime, more than 200 rioters have pleaded guilty, primarily to misdemeanor offenses, and received sentences ranging from probation to six months in jail. A handful of felony defendants who pleaded guilty to crimes like police assault and obstruction have received sentences ranging between eight months and about five years in prison.

Reffitt’s trial will stand out, even among the most extreme Jan. 6 cases because of the role of his children — and a militia member that DOJ says has been granted immunity to testify against Reffitt.

Prosecutors said Jackson and his younger sister Peyton are expected to testify at the trial that their father urged them not to cooperate with the FBI.

“If you turn me in, you’re a traitor, and you know what happens to traitors … Traitors get shot,” Guy Reffitt said, according to prosecutors. They also allege he said to his daughter that if he found out that he was being recorded or his comments were posted on social media, he would put a bullet through her phone.

Those remarks led to the obstruction of justice charge Reffitt faces along with the obstruction of an official proceeding charge. Each carries a potential 20-year jail sentence. Prosecutors also intend to call several Capitol Police officers, FBI agents, a former Senate aide who was present on Jan. 6, and a Secret Service agent familiar with the movements of then-Vice President Mike Pence.

Reffitt’s attorney, William Welch, has dismissed his client’s comments as “idle threats,” and he has gotten some support for that view from Reffitt’s daughter Peyton.

During a bail hearing last March, Peyton Reffitt confirmed that her father made a reference to shooting traitors, but she did not view it as a threat.

“He said words that crossed the line, but I knew that there were no — there was zero intention behind those words,” Peyton Reffitt said then. “I mean, he says things that cross the line all the time, but I didn’t feel threatened at all.”

Jackson didn’t testify at that hearing, but has done a series of interviews describing his outrage at his father’s actions and explaining his decision to turn his dad in. Jackson told ABC News that he did not think his father was actually going to shoot him, but he still felt intimidated.

“I think the way he’s been manipulated into thinking by these extremist groups and what’s been fed to him, it is worrying enough that I don’t know what he was going to do next.”

Video from the day of the riot shows a man prosecutors have said is Guy Reffitt wearing a blue jacket and a GoPro-type video camera clashing with police on the West Terrace of the Capitol. At one point, the man who appears to be Reffitt can be seen rinsing his eyes, apparently from the effects of tear gas deployed by rioters, police or both.

Although Reffitt is not accused of entering the Capitol, he was in the first wave of Jan. 6 defendants arrested by the FBI. Despite repeated unsuccessful bids for release, he has been in custody since Jan. 19, 2021. Reffitt’s spent almost all of that time at the D.C. Jail, where he’s emerged as a relatively prominent figure among the several dozen Capitol riot defendants in pretrial detention there. Reffitt and some of his family members have publicly complained that he’s a victim of political persecution.

“The beginning of the 1/6 Political Prisoner trials,” Reffitt wrote last week in a letter posted on a Telegram group for supporters of the Jan. 6 defendants, according to WUSA-TV. “Orwellian thought crimes, Spies, and the Ministry of Truth.”

Another likely major point of contention at the trial: the gun charge Reffitt faces, which is extremely rare among Jan. 6 defendants. Reffitt allegedly admitted to the FBI that he brought his Smith & Wesson pistol to Washington, but claimed he disassembled it and did not bring it to the Capitol.

However, prosecutors say that Reffitt was wearing the pistol holster at the Capitol and that in at least one photo something can be seen glistening in the sun in that holster. Witnesses are also expected to testify that Reffitt spoke about bringing his gun with him that day.

Some Republican lawmakers have sought to minimize the Jan. 6 attack by claiming that none or almost none of the participants were armed. However, prosecutors say a few like Reffitt did have firearms and others organized their weapons into caches kept in Virginia that were allegedly ready to be dispatched to the capital on a moment’s notice.

The trial set to open Monday is also the first high-profile jury trial to take place in Washington since the coronavirus pandemic broke out two years ago, leading to major disruptions in courts around the country and to a suspension of jury trials in Washington’s federal court for more than a year.

Friedrich said she does not plan to allow the public to listen to audio of the trial on a phone line the court has made available for nearly all hearings over the past two years. She cited concerns that witnesses might listen to the trial and hear things that could color their testimony.

Because of the Constitution’s requirement for public trials, closure of a trial to the public can lead to serious consequences, sometimes requiring a retrial.

In 2019, a trial for former Obama White House Counsel Greg Craig on a foreign-lobbying-related false-statement charge was halted and restarted after a day due to the judge excluding the press and public from jury selection. Prosecutors said the closure could jeopardize any guilty verdict in the case, prompting jury selection to start over with members of the press able to observe and listen.

A jury ultimately acquitted Craig.

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