The US Justice Department launched one of the largest and most complex criminal investigations in its history after a mob of former president Donald Trump's supporters stormed the US Capitol over a year ago, and now a jury will hear some of the government’s evidence about the attack.
The first trial for one of the hundreds of Capitol riot prosecutions began this week, with jury selection starting on Monday for the case against Guy Wesley Reffitt. T
he Texas man is charged with bringing a gun on to Capitol grounds, interfering with police officers guarding the building and threatening his teenage children so they would not report him to authorities.
The trial could be a bellwether for many other Capitol riot cases: a conviction would give prosecutors more leverage in plea talks with rioters facing the most serious charges while an acquittal may lead others to wait for their own day in court.
Mr Reffitt “truly is the canary in the coal mine”, said Gregg Sofer, a former federal prosecutor who served as US attorney for the Western District of Texas from October 2020 to February 2021.
Miners used to carry caged canaries down into mines to test for poisonous gases, but they have been replaced by digital CO detectors.
“It’ll really be interesting to see how strong a case the government has and whether or not they’re relying on evidence that, when pushed and tested, stands up. It’s going to have a huge impact going forward,” added Mr Sofer, now a partner at a law firm.
The accused is a member of a militia-style group called the Texas Three Percenters, prosecutors say, a movement whose name refers to the belief that only 3 per cent of Americans fought in the Revolutionary War against the British — meaning a small number of armed citizens would easily be able to respond to any perceived abuses by the US government.
On January 6, 2021, Mr Reffitt was armed with a handgun in a holster on his waist, carrying zip-tie handcuffs and wearing body armour and a helmet equipped with a video camera when he and others charged police officers on the west side of the Capitol, prosecutors said.
“This action caused the police line guarding the building to retreat closer to the building itself; soon after this, law enforcement was overwhelmed and rioters flooded the building,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing.
Mr Reffitt retreated only after an officer pepper-sprayed him in the face, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors claim Mr Reffitt took at least two firearms with him to Washington and that on the morning of January 6, he planned to “do the recon and then come back for weapons hot”, sending messages to others about meeting at a “rendezvous point”.
“These messages, along with the weapons that Mr Reffitt carried and the gear he wore, make clear that the defendant did not come to DC with the intention to engage in peaceful activity,” prosecutors wrote.
The siege resulted in the deaths of five people, including a police officer. The Justice Department says more than 235 rioters have been charged with assaulting or impeding law enforcement, injuring more than 100 officers. Rioters caused over $1 million 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 defence lawyers.
More than 750 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the riot and at least 200 of them have pleaded guilty, mostly to misdemeanours carrying a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment. More than 100 people have been sentenced and at least 90 others have trial dates this year.
Philadelphia-based defence lawyer Justin Danilewitz, who was a federal prosecutor in New Jersey from 2012 to 2017, said a conviction in Mr Reffitt’s case may lead to a flurry of guilty pleas by other people facing trial.
“And that can benefit defendants on occasion because it’s better than the alternative if the alternative is a conviction following a trial,” Mr Danilewitz added.
An acquittal could inspire others to “dig in their heels” and either push for a better plea offer from prosecutors or gamble a trial of their own, he said.
Mr Reffitt has been jailed since his arrest in Texas less than a week after the riot. He faces five counts: obstruction of an official proceeding, being unlawfully present on Capitol grounds while armed with a firearm, transporting firearms during a civil disorder, interfering with law enforcement officers during a civil disorder and obstruction of justice.
The obstruction charge stems from threats that he allegedly made against his son, then 18, and daughter, then 16, after returning home from Washington. Mr 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.
Messages recovered from Mr Reffitt’s mobile phone indicate he planned to joined an armed insurrection on January 6 and intended to occupy the Capitol, prosecutors said.
“We had thousands of weapons and fired no rounds yet showed numbers. The next time, we will not be so cordial,” he wrote, according to prosecutors.
Presiding over Mr Reffitt’s trial is US District Judge Dabney Friedrich, who was nominated by Mr Trump in 2017. She has already sentenced nine rioters who pleaded guilty.
Ms Friedrich individually questioned 13 prospective jurors on Monday, asking them how closely they have followed news coverage of the Capitol riot.
The judge disqualified three members of the jury pool who said they would have difficulty setting aside their opinions or emotions about the riot.
Jurors will see videos that captured Mr Reffitt’s confrontation with police and prosecutors also have audio recordings of him talking about the riot after returning home.
“We made a point. That was a historic day,” Mr Reffitt said during one of the recorded conversations, according to prosecutors.
“And guess what? I’m not done yet. I got a lot more to do. That’s the beginning.”
Mr Reffitt’s son, daughter and a fellow Texas Three Percenter group member also are listed as government witnesses. The group member travelled with Mr Reffitt to Washington and back to Texas between January 4 and January 8, 2021.
“During the drive [to Washington], Mr Reffitt talked about ‘dragging those people out of the Capitol by their ankles’ and installing a new government,” prosecutors wrote.
AP contributed to this report