'He invited us': Accused Capitol rioters blame Trump in novel legal defense

by Reuters
Tuesday, 2 February 2021 11:00 GMT

By Jan Wolfe

Feb 2 (Reuters) - Emanuel Jackson, a 20-year-old Washington area man, was caught on video using a metal bat to strike the protective shields wielded by police officers as they tried to fend off rioters storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Jackson, awaiting trial in federal court on assault charges, is now adopting a novel legal defense: seeking to pin the blame on Donald Trump, citing the former president's remarks at a "Stop the Steal" rally shortly before the Capitol siege.

Trump told the crowd to "fight like hell," said "we will not take it anymore" and repeated his false claims that the election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud. Trump exhorted his followers to go to the Capitol. The ensuing rampage interrupted the congressional certification of President Joe Biden's election victory, sent lawmakers into hiding and left five people dead including a police officer.

Jackson's lawyer, Brandi Harden, wrote in a Jan. 22 court filing that "the nature and circumstances of this offense must be viewed through the lens of an event inspired by the President of the United States."

The Capitol siege, Harden added, "appears to have been spontaneous and sparked by the statements made during the 'Stop the Steal' rally." Harden argued that Jackson should be released while awaiting trial. A judge on Jan. 22 denied the request.

At least six of the 170 people charged in connection with the Capitol siege have tried to shift at least some of the blame onto Trump as they defend themselves in court or in the court of public opinion.

Other defendants to take this route include Jacob Chansley, who donned a horned headdress and face paint during the attack, and Dominic Pezzola, a member of the Proud Boys right-wing extremist group who is accused of shattering a window in the Capitol with a stolen police shield so rioters could enter.

"The boss of the country said, 'People of the country, come on down, let people know what you think,'" Pezzola's defense lawyer, Michael Scibetta, told Reuters. "The logical thinking was, 'He invited us down.'"

Lawyers have not yet sought dismissal of charges or acquittal during a trial based on the idea that Trump incited their clients, instead making the claim as part of efforts to spare them from pretrial detention.

No defendant will be able to avoid criminal culpability by saying they were incited by Trump, said Jay Town, who served as the top federal prosecutor in Birmingham, Alabama, during the Trump administration.

"If anything, it is an admission to criminal conduct," said Town, now the general counsel of cybersecurity firm Gray Analytics. "While this ineffective tactic may help with headlines, it will not help the fate of any defendant."

Trump took to a stage near the White House and exhorted supporters to "fight" - using the word more than 20 times. Trump told the crowd that "everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol." About 50 minutes into the speech, many of them did.

Trump adviser Jason Miller did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the legal strategy of blaming the former president. Trump has called his speech "totally appropriate."

IMPEACHMENT TRIAL

The Democratic-led House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump on a charge of "incitement of insurrection" stemming from his Jan. 6 speech. He faces an impeachment trial next week in the Senate.

Enough of his fellow Republicans in the Senate have signaled opposition to impeachment to indicate that the chamber almost certainly will fall short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict him. Democrats hope to use the trial to disqualify him from future public office.

Lori Ulrich, a defense lawyer in Pennsylvania, said that her client Riley June Williams was motivated by Trump's remarks. Williams, 22, is accused of stealing a laptop from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office during the siege.

It is "regrettable that Ms. Williams took the president's bait and went inside the Capitol," Ulrich told a judge at a Jan. 21 court hearing as she argued against Williams being detained while her case proceeds. The judge released Williams to home confinement.

Some legal experts said the "blame Trump" defense could complicate matters for defendants if they eventually plead guilty in hopes of getting a lesser sentence. Town noted that federal judges require defendants who plead guilty to accept full responsibility for their conduct.

Scibetta acknowledged the limits of the effectiveness of blaming Trump.

"It would be reckless to put all your eggs in that basket," Scibetta said.

But Scibetta said Trump's speech helps explain how people got swept away in the riot.

"These were people acting in a way they have never acted before," Scibetta said, "and it begs the question, 'Who lit the fuse?"

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham and Noeleen Walder)

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