By Michael Kunzelman | Associated Press
WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has launched one of the largest and most complex criminal investigations in its history after a crowd of Donald Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol more than a year ago. Now is the time for a jury to hear some of the government’s evidence on the incomparable attack on American democracy.
The first trial for one of the Capitol’s hundreds of riot lawsuits begins this week, with jury selection set to begin Monday in the case against Guy Wesley Reffitt. The Texas man is accused of bringing a gun to the Capitol, interfering with police officers guarding the building, and threatening his teenage children if they reported him to authorities. Jurors could hear lawyers’ initial statements on Tuesday.
Reffitt’s trial may be a point of reference for many other Capitol riot cases. A conviction would give more influence to prosecutors in convictions talks with rioters facing more serious charges. An acquittal can lead others to wait for their own day in court.
Reffitt “really is the canary of the coal mine,” said Gregg Sofer, a former federal prosecutor who served as a U.S. attorney for the West Texas District from October 2020 to February 2021. “It will be really interesting to see the strong case that it has the government and whether or not they rely on evidence that, when pushed and tested, they resist. It will have a big impact in the future, “added Sofer, now a partner at law firm Husch Blackwell.
Reffitt is a member of a militia-style group called the Texas Three Percenters, according to prosecutors. The Three Percent Militia Movement refers to the myth that only 3% of Americans fought in the Revolutionary War against the British.
On January 6, 2021, Reffitt was armed with a pistol in a holster around his waist, wearing handcuffs with a zipper, and wearing armor and a helmet equipped with a video camera when he and others charged at police officers on the west side of the Capitol, according to the prosecutors.
“This action caused the police line guarding the building to retreat closer to the building itself; shortly afterwards, law enforcement was overwhelmed and riots flooded the building, “prosecutors wrote in a court file.
Reffitt withdrew only after an officer sprayed pepper on his face, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors believe Reffitt took at least two firearms with him to Washington: an AR-15 rifle and a Smith & Wesson pistol. When FBI agents searched Reffitt’s home in Wylie, Texas, they found a gun in a holster on a nightstand in the defendant’s bedroom. Prosecutors say Reffitt’s photos and video during the riot show a holster in his right hip, with what appears to be a silver object inside the holster.
On the morning of Jan. 6, Reffitt said he planned to “do the reconnaissance and then return by hot weapons” and sent messages about the meeting at a “meeting point,” according to prosecutors. These messages, along with the weapons Reffitt was carrying and the equipment he was wearing, make it clear that the defendant did not come to DC with the intent to engage in peaceful activity, “the prosecutor wrote.
The siege killed five people, including a police officer. The Justice Department says more than 235 rioters have been charged with assaulting or obstructing law enforcement, injuring more than 100 officers. The rioters caused more than a million dollars in damage to the Capitol.
The Justice Department says its investigation has generated an unprecedented volume of evidence, with hundreds of thousands of documents and thousands of hours of videos to share with defense attorneys. Shared files add up to more than nine terabytes of information and would take more than 100 days to view, according to the department.
More than 750 people have been charged with federal riots related to the riot. More than 200 of them pleaded guilty, most of them to misdemeanors with a maximum sentence of six months in prison. More than 100 accused of rioting have been convicted. And at least another 90 have trial dates this year.
Philadelphia defense attorney Justin Danilewitz, who served as federal prosecutor in New Jersey from 2012 to 2017, said a conviction in Reffitt’s case could lead to a series of convictions by other rioters.
“And that can benefit defendants at times because it’s better than the alternative if the alternative is a conviction after a trial,” Danilewitz added.
An acquittal could inspire other defendants to “dig into their heels” and push for a better prosecution offer to testify or bet on a trial of their own, he said.
Defense attorney William Welch said there was no evidence that Reffitt damaged property, used force, or physically injured anyone. In a May 2021 court appearance, Welch said none of the videos or photos show a weapon in Reffitt’s possession at the Capitol.
“In fact, none of the police officers interviewed by the government said anything about a firearm,” he wrote.
Reffitt has been incarcerated since his arrest in Texas less than a week after the riot. He faces five charges: obstruction of an official process, being illegally present on Capitol grounds while armed with a firearm, carrying firearms during a civil disorder, interfering with law enforcement officers during a civil disorder, and obstruction of justice.
The charge of obstruction of justice stems from threats he allegedly made against his then-18-year-old son and then-16-year-old daughter after returning home from Washington. Reffitt told his children to “choose a side or die” and said they would be traitors if they reported him to law enforcement, prosecutors said.
“He predicted future political violence in statements to both his family and other members of the militia, boasted to his fellow militia members of his involvement in the riot, recruited other riot police and ordered spraying riot bears and shields at his home to prepare. more violence, “prosecutors wrote.
Recovered messages from Reffitt’s cell phone indicate he planned to join an armed insurgency on Jan. 6 and intended to occupy the Capitol, prosecutors said.
“We had thousands of guns and did not fire any bullets even though it showed numbers. Next time we will not be so cordial,” he wrote, according to prosecutors.
Judge Reffitt presides over U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich, who was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017. Friedrich has already convicted nine riot police officers who pleaded guilty.
Freidrich individually questioned more than 30 possible jurors on Monday, asking them how closely they followed the news coverage of the Capitol riot. Some said they formed strong and negative opinions about the events of January 6, but that they could strive to be fair and impartial.
The judge disqualified several members of the jury who said they would have a hard time putting aside their opinions or emotions about the riot. One of them, a man who lives near the Capitol, said the riot was like “an attack on my house in a sense.”
“It was a very scary time,” he told the judge.
Jury selection is scheduled to resume on Tuesday. The judge said he hopes to form a jury to hear the initial statements later in the day.
Prosecutors hope to call a dozen witnesses, including three Capitol police officers who interacted with Reffitt and an officer in charge of the U.S. Capitol Police Command Center.
Jurors will watch videos that captured Reffitt’s confrontation with police. Prosecutors also have audio recordings of Reffitt talking about the riot inside his home after he returned home.
“We made a point. That was a historic day,” Reffitt said during one of the recorded conversations, according to prosecutors. “And guess what? I’m not done yet. I have so much more to do. That’s the beginning.”
Reffitt’s son, daughter and a fellow Texas Three Percenter are also listed as government witnesses. The group member traveled with Reffitt to Washington and returned to Texas between January 4 and 8, 2021.
“During the trip (to Washington), Reffitt talked about ‘dragging those people out of the Capitol by the ankles’ and installing a new government,” prosecutors wrote.
A court file referring to the other militia member by the initials “RH” says the man will tell jurors he received immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony.
Welch said Reffitt worked as a platform manager and as an oil industry consultant before COVID-19 restrictions closed his business.
Many Jan 6 attack cases hinge on first trial’s outcome Source link Many Jan 6 attack cases hinge on first trial’s outcome