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Politics

Judges Keeping Capitol Riot Trials in DC amid Bias Claims

WASHINGTON — For some of the Washington, D.C., residents who reported for jury duty last month, a pro-Trump mob’s assault on the U.S. Capitol felt like a personal attack.

Ahead of a trial for a Michigan man charged in the riot, one prospective juror said a police officer injured during the melee is a close friend. Another has friends who are congressional staffers 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 swiftly convicted Anthony Robert Williams of storming the Capitol to obstruct Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential electoral victory.

But their personal connections to the riot highlight the challenge facing judges and attorneys in choosing impartial jurors in Washington to decide the hundreds of criminal cases stemming from the insurrection — especially as lawmakers hold high-profile public hearings on the insurrection 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 that their clients couldn’t get a fair trial in the midst of televised hearings by 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 that the odds are unfairly stacked against Jan. 6 defendants in the nation’s capital.

“D.C. is a city that, as a whole, feels that it has been the victim of a crime,” attorneys in two cases against members and associates of the far-right Oath Keepers extremist group wrote in court papers seeking to have their trials moved to 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 Jan. 6 cases have consistently rejected requests to move trials, saying the capital has plenty of residents who can serve as fair jurors.

Prosecutors’ unblemished record so far in jury trials for Jan. 6 cases may speak to the strength of the evidence against the rioters, many of whom were captured on camera storming the Capitol and even bragged about their actions on social media.

It’s the latest in a string of long-shot legal gambits from defendants charged with crimes ranging from low-level misdemeanors to felony seditious conspiracy. Already more than 300 people across the U.S. have pleaded guilty to crimes stemming from the deadly riot. Collectively, 72 jurors have unanimously convicted six Jan. 6 defendants of all 35 counts in their indictments.

The federal court in Washington — where all the Jan. 6 cases are being heard — has seen plenty of politically charged trials, including those for former Mayor Marion Barry, Iran-Contra figure Oliver North and ex-Trump adviser Roger Stone, prosecutors note.

It’s exceptionally rare for judges to agree to move trials to a different location, even in the most high-profile cases. Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, for example, was tried in Boston over the objections of his attorneys even though a large number of people in the city were impacted by the attack, which killed three people and wounded more than 260 others.

If Williams, the Jan. 6 defendant, had had his way, his trial would have been held in his native Michigan. His lawyers argued that inflammatory media coverage of the Capitol attack tainted a jury pool that already was predisposed to view him as somebody who victimized them.

Chief Judge Beryl Howell denied Williams’ request for a change of trial venue before jury selection started on June 27. One by one, the judge questioned 49 prospective jurors before seating 12 jurors and two alternates.

Howell disqualified several prospective jurors after questioning them about their personal connections or strong feelings about the events of Jan. 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 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 excused him.

Howell also disqualified a woman who described herself as “very left biased” and a former New York City resident who said his “deep-rooted” dislike for former President Donald Trump predates his White House years.

The jurors picked 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 any strong opinions about Jan. 6.

More than three dozen Capitol riot defendants have asked to have their trials moved out of Washington, including at least nine who filed their requests in June. None has succeeded so far.

In denying one such request, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said she agreed with prosecutors that there is no reason to believe that Washington’s entire population was so affected by the events of Jan. 6 that it can’t seat an impartial panel.

“In any U.S. jurisdiction, most prospective jurors will have heard about the events of January 6, and many will have various disqualifying biases,” she wrote.

Before a jury convicted retired New York City police officer Thomas Webster of assaulting a Capitol police officer during the riot, Webster’s lawyer said a survey of Washington residents found that 84% believe Jan. 6 defendants were trying to overturn the 2020 election results and keep Trump, a Republican, in power. The defense attorney, James Monroe, also noted that 92% of Washington residents voted for Biden, a Democrat.

“Given the lopsided political makeup of the District, it is impossible to panel a jury that is not entirely comprised of people preordained to find Webster — a presumed Trump supporter — guilty,” Monroe wrote.

U.S District Judge Amit Mehta rejected the motion, saying the survey shows that nearly half of the Washington residents polled “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 trial on seditious conspiracy charges from Washington to Alexandria, Virginia. Their lawyers noted that every Jan. 6 case tried before a jury in Washington has resulted in a conviction.

“That is true, but guilty verdicts are hardly 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 on the Capitol riot, which drew millions of TV viewers.

Defense attorney John Kiyonaga, who represents Capitol riot defendant Robert Morss, said the House committee hearings have “poisoned” the jury pool in Washington. Kiyonaga has asked for his client’s trial to be moved to another district.

“The Committee has spoon fed to the entire nation a precisely choreographed rendition of January 6th defendants as ‘insurrectionists’ and murderous orchestrators of an attempted coup,” Kiyonaga wrote.

A trial was scheduled to start in August for several members of the far-right Proud Boys extremist group charged with seditious conspiracy and accused of plotting to forcibly oppose the lawful transfer of presidential power on Jan. 6.

But U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly agreed to move the trial to December after lawyers for some Proud Boys members argued they couldn’t pick an impartial jury in the midst of the House committee hearings.

Defense attorney Carmen Hernandez also cited “non-stop prejudicial publicity” from the House committee hearings as grounds for moving the Proud Boys trial to another district, but the judge hasn’t ruled on that yet.

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