To some Washington, D.C. residents, who spoke out about jury duty last month, the pro-Trump mob’s attack on the US Capitol seemed like a personal attack.
Before the trial of a Michigan man accused of the riots, a prospective juror said the police officer injured during the clash was a close friend. The last friends working in Congress or journalists who worked on the Capitol had on January 6, 2021. A woman whose boyfriend lived near the Capitol recalled the horror 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 President Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral victory.
But their personal connections to the riots highlight the challenge facing judges and attorneys in selecting impartial jurors in Washington to decide hundreds of criminal cases arising from the insurgency—especially since lawmakers hold high-level public hearings on the insurgency less than a mile from a court.
One of the most serious cases brought by the Justice Department in the Capitol attack has already been adjourned after defense attorneys argued that their clients could not get a fair trial in the midst of televised hearings by the House committee investigating the riots.
An increasing number of defendants are pressing to have their trials removed from the capital, saying the results of the first trials prove that the odds are unfairly stacked against the defendants on January 6 in the country’s capital.
Lawyers in two cases against members and associates of the far-right extremist group Oath Keepers wrote in court papers seeking to have their trials moved: “Capital is a city that, in general, feels like it has been the victim of a crime.” to Virginia.
Prosecutors and judges see no evidence that capitol rioters can’t get a fair trial in the capital and believe the process of eliminating biased jurors is working. The judges who presided over the January 6 cases have consistently denied requests to move trials, saying the capital has too many residents to serve as fair jurors.
Prosecutors’ record thus far in the jury trials of the January 6 cases may speak to the strength of the evidence against the rioters, many of whom were caught on camera storming the Capitol and even boasted of their actions on social media.
It’s the latest in a long-running series of legal maneuvers from defendants accused of crimes ranging from low-level misdemeanors to felony sedition conspiracy. More than 300 people across the United States have already pleaded guilty to crimes arising from the riots. Collectively, 72 jurors unanimously convicted six defendants on January 6 on all 35 counts in the indictments.
Prosecutors note that the federal court in Washington — where all of the January 6 cases are heard — has seen plenty of trials with political charges, including those of former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, Iran-contra personality Oliver North, and former Trump adviser Roger Stone. .
It is extremely rare for judges to agree to move trials to a different location, even in the most high-profile cases. For example, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was prosecuted in Boston over the objections of his attorney even though a large number of people in the city were affected by the attack that killed three people and injured more than 260 others.
If January 6 defendant Anthony Robert Williams had gotten what he wanted, his trial would have taken place in his native Michigan. His lawyers argued that the inflammatory media coverage of the Capitol attack had been tainted by a group of jurors who were already willing to view Williams as their victim.
Chief Justice Beryl Howell denied Williams’ request to change the venue of the trial before jury selection began on June 27. One by one, the judge questioned 49 potential jurors before 12 jurors and two alternates were seated.
Howell disqualified several potential jurors after questioning them about their personal connections or strong feelings about the events of January 6. A judge asked a woman if her friendship with an officer who broke his ribs during the riots would prevent her from being fair and impartial.
The woman replied, “My Christian says ‘No’, but my feelings say ‘Yes’.”
A married man told a USA Today reporter that January 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 pardoned him.
Howell also excluded a self-described “very left-leaning” former New York City resident who said his “deep-rooted” hatred of former President Donald Trump predates his years in the White House.
Among the jurors selected for Williams’ trial were a NASA engineer, a company mobile employee, a legal assistant, a Wall Street regulator and a former State Department employee. None of them expressed any strong opinions regarding January 6th.
More than 36 accused in the Capitol riots have requested that their trials be moved outside of Washington, including at least nine who filed in June. None of them have succeeded so far.
Rejecting one of these requests, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said she agreed with prosecutors that there was no reason to believe that all Washington residents were so affected by the events of January 6 that they could not sit before an impartial body.
“In any US jurisdiction, most potential jurors will have heard of the events of January 6, and many will have different biases of disqualification,” she wrote.
Before a jury convicted retired New York police officer Thomas Webster of assaulting a Capitol police officer during the riots, Webster’s attorney said a survey of Washington residents found that 84% believed the January 6 defendants were trying to nullify the 2020 election results and keep Trump. in power. Defense attorney James Monroe also noted that 92% of Washington residents voted for Biden.
“Given the lopsided political makeup of the region,” Monroe wrote, “it is impossible to put together a jury that is not entirely composed of predetermined people to find Webster—a presumed Trump supporter—guilty.”
US District Judge Amit Mehta rejected the proposal, saying the poll showed that nearly half of Washington residents surveyed “will remain open about a given issue.”
Members of the oath’s guard also failed to persuade Mehta to move their trial for seditious conspiracy from Washington to Alexandria, Virginia. Their attorneys noted that every January 6 case tried by a jury in Washington resulted in a conviction.
“That’s true, but convictions are hardly uncommon in federal criminal prosecutions,” Mehta wrote. “Just because there are other convictions does not mean that the jury pool is tainted by nature.”
Williams’ trial was the first January 6 since a House committee began holding hearings on the Capitol riots, which drew millions of television viewers.
Defense attorney John Kiunaga, who is representing Robert Morse, accused of the Capitol riots, said the House committee hearings “poisoned” the jury in Washington. Kiyonaga requested that his client’s trial be moved to another district.
“The commission made a spoonful to the whole nation of a meticulously designed offer of the accused on January 6 as ‘rebels’ and coordinators murderers of an attempted coup,” Kiyonaga wrote.
A trial was due to begin in August of several members of the far-right extremist group Proud Boys accused of seditious conspiracy and charged with conspiracy to oppose the January 6 legal transfer of presidential power.
But the U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly agreed to move the trial to December after lawyers for some members of the Proud Boys argued that they could not choose an impartial jury in the midst of House committee hearings.
Defense attorney Carmen Hernandez also cited “nonstop harmful publicity” from House committee hearings as a basis for moving the Proud Boys trial to another district, but the judge has yet to rule on that.
Boston author Alanna Durkin Richer contributed to this report for The Associated Press.
For complete coverage of the January 6 sessions, go to https://www.apnews.com/capitol-siege.