WASHINGTON — For some of the Washington, DC residents who stood for juror last month, a pro-Trump mob’s assault on the United States Capitol felt like a personal attack.
Ahead of the trial of a Michigan man accused of participating in the riot, a prospective juror said a police officer injured in the melee was a close friend. Another has friends who are members of Congress 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 quickly convicted Anthony Robert Williams of storming the Capitol to block Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential victory.
But their personal ties to the riot highlight the challenge judges and lawyers face in choosing impartial jurors in Washington to decide the hundreds of criminal cases stemming from the insurgency — especially as lawmakers hold high-profile public hearings on the insurgency 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 their clients could not get a fair trial amid hearings television broadcasts of 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 the odds are unfairly stacked against the Jan. 6 defendants in the nation’s capital.
‘DC is a city that as a whole feels like it has been the victim of a crime,’ lawyers in two cases against members and associates of far-right extremist group Oath Keepers wrote in court documents seeking to have their trials moved. in 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 the January 6 cases have consistently rejected requests to move the trials, saying the capital has many residents who can serve as fair jurors.
Prosecutors’ spotless record so far in jury trials for the Jan. 6 cases can attest to the strength of the evidence against the rioters, many of whom were filmed storming the Capitol and even bragged about their actions on social networks.
It’s the latest in a series of long-running legal schemes by defendants charged with crimes ranging from petty misdemeanors to a seditious conspiracy. Already more than 300 people across the United States have pleaded guilty to crimes stemming from the deadly riot. Collectively, 72 jurors unanimously convicted six defendants on January 6 on all 35 counts in their indictments.
Federal court in Washington – where all Jan. 6 cases are heard – has seen many politically charged trials, including those of former mayor Marion Barry, Iran-Contra figure Oliver North and the former Trump adviser Roger Stone, prosecutors note.
It is exceptionally rare for judges to agree to move trials to a different location, even in the most high-profile cases. Boston Marathon suicide bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, for example, stood trial in Boston over objections from his lawyers, even though large numbers of people in the city were affected by the attack, which killed three people and injured more than 260 others.
Had Williams, the Jan. 6 defendant, been successful, his trial would have taken place in his native Michigan. His attorneys argued that inflammatory media coverage of the Capitol attack tainted an already predisposed group of jurors to view him as someone who victimized them.
Chief Justice Beryl Howell denied Williams’ request to change the trial venue before jury selection begins on June 27. One by one, the judge interviewed 49 potential jurors before seating 12 jurors and two alternates.
Howell disqualified several potential jurors after questioning them about their personal relationships or their strong feelings about the events of January 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 was a frequent topic of discussion among their friends who work on Capitol Hill.
“It would be very difficult to separate them,” he said before Howell excused him.
Howell also disqualified a woman who described herself as ‘very left-wing’ and a former New York resident who said her ‘deep-rooted’ dislike of former President Donald Trump predated his years in 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 a strong opinion on January 6th.
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 succeeded so far.
In denying such a request, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said she agreed with prosecutors that there was no reason to believe that the entire population of Washington was so affected by the events of January 6 that she could not sit on an impartial panel.
“In any U.S. jurisdiction, most potential jurors will have heard of the events of January 6, and many will have various disqualifying biases,” she wrote.
Before a jury convicted retired New York police officer Thomas Webster of assaulting a Capitol police officer during the riot, Webster’s attorney said an investigation of residents of Washington revealed that 84% believe the Jan. 6 defendants were trying to overturn the 2020 election results and keep Trump. , a Republican, in power. Defense attorney James Monroe also noted that 92% of the votes cast by Washington residents went to Biden, a Democrat.
“Given the lopsided political makeup of the district, it is impossible to form a jury that is not composed entirely of people predestined to find Webster — an alleged Trump supporter — guilty,” Monroe wrote.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta denied the motion, saying the survey 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 their seditious conspiracy trial from Washington to Alexandria, Virginia. Their lawyers noted that every January 6 case tried before a jury in Washington has resulted in a conviction.
“True, but guilty verdicts are not 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 into the Capitol riot, which drew millions of viewers.
Defense attorney John Kiyonaga, who represents Robert Morss, the defendant in the Capitol riots, said the House committee hearings had “poisoned” the panel of jurors in Washington. Kiyonaga requested that his client’s trial be transferred to another district.
“The Committee spoon-fed the entire nation a precisely choreographed rendition of the January 6 defendants as ‘insurgents’ and murderous orchestrators of a coup attempt,” Kiyonaga wrote.
A trial was due to open in August for several members of the far-right extremist group Proud Boys charged with seditious conspiracy and accused of plotting to forcibly oppose the January 6 legal transfer of presidential power.
But U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly agreed to move the trial to December after attorneys for some Proud Boys members argued they couldn’t choose an impartial jury amid House committee hearings.
Defense attorney Carmen Hernandez also cited the “relentless prejudicial publicity” of House committee hearings as grounds for moving the Proud Boys’ trial to another district, but the judge has yet to rule on that. .
Michael Kunzelman reports for The Associated Press.
Associated Press writer Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston contributed to this report.