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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Texas man convicted in first Jan. 6 trial

Supporters of then-President Donald Trump storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

By Alan Feuer

A federal jury Tuesday swiftly convicted the first accused Jan. 6 rioter to go on trial even as prosecutors announced they had expanded their inquiry by indicting a former leader of the Proud Boys, a far-right nationalist group that played a prominent role in the Capitol attack.

After only three hours of deliberations, the jury found the defendant in the trial, Guy Wesley Reffitt, guilty on five counts. They included obstructing Congress’ certification of the 2020 presidential election by helping to lead a pro-Trump mob in an advance against police that resulted in the violent breach of the building in 2021.

Reffitt was also convicted of wearing an illegal pistol on his hip during the attack and of later threatening his teenage son and daughter to keep them from turning him in to authorities. He faces up to 20 years in prison on the obstruction count alone.

The trial, in U.S. District Court in Washington, was an important victory for the Justice Department, which has only just begun the marathon process of bringing to trial what could be scores of rioters accused of storming the Capitol or assaulting police outside it.

In particular, prosecutors and defense lawyers had been watching closely to see if the government’s use of a rarely used obstruction charge against Reffitt would hold up in court, since the same count is at the heart of many of the cases yet to reach trial and has been challenged by numerous defendants.

Just hours before Reffitt was convicted, the Justice Department made clear that the vast investigation is not slowing down, arresting former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and saying he had been indicted on charges of conspiring with several of his top lieutenants to plan and launch the assault.

The indictment of Tarrio did not fundamentally alter the portrait of the violence that erupted at the Capitol. But it did fill in details about how the Proud Boys — one of the most visible far-right extremist groups on the ground that day — planned for and took part in the storming of the building.

Tarrio’s indictment was the second time in recent months that criminal charges had been filed against a leader of a far-right group that played a prominent role in the attack. In January, prosecutors charged Stewart Rhodes, founder and leader of the Oath Keepers militia, with seditious conspiracy for what the government has described as a plot to violently disrupt the work of Congress.

The criminal inquiry into the Capitol attack — now in its 14th month — is by any measure one of the largest and most complicated ever undertaken by the Justice Department. More than 750 rioters have been charged so far with crimes that range from trespassing to seditious conspiracy. More than 200 people have already pleaded guilty.

The department’s investigation is unfolding as a separate inquiry is being conducted by a House select committee that has interviewed more than 550 witnesses and issued more than 100 subpoenas. While the committee does not have the power to charge people with crimes, it said in a recent court filing that it had gathered sufficient evidence to conclude that former President Donald Trump and some of his allies might have conspired to commit fraud and obstruction by misleading Americans about the outcome of the 2020 election and attempting to overturn the result.

The trial of Reffitt, an oil field worker from Wylie, Texas, just outside Dallas, offered an early glimpse of the exhaustive evidence that prosecutors have collected. The weeklong proceeding featured testimony from police officers, a Secret Service agent, one of Reffitt’s compatriots in the Texas Three Percenters militia group and Reffitt’s teenage son.

Prosecutors also introduced a wealth of other evidence, including private Telegram chats among Reffitt and other members of the militia before the Capitol attack, a recording of a Zoom call they conducted after the riot and a 30-minute video that Reffitt made of himself — with a camera mounted on his helmet — just before he led the mob up a staircase outside the Senate chamber and confronted police.

In their opening arguments last week, prosecutors played the jury the video he had made of himself moving among the crowd outside the Capitol and repeatedly urging people to storm the building and drag lawmakers like Speaker Nancy Pelosi out by their hair or their ankles.

With a .40-caliber pistol in a holster on his hip, Reffitt ultimately led a section of the mob up a staircase of the building, pushing through a hail of pepper balls and other projectiles until he was finally subdued with chemical spray, according to the officers who fought him off.

Some of the most dramatic testimony at the trial came from Reffitt’s 19-year-old son, Jackson, who told the jury about how the toxic politics of the Trump era had caused a painful rupture in the family. The tensions boiled over, Jackson Reffitt said, after his father returned to Texas after storming the Capitol and told him and his sister not to sell their father out to authorities.

“He said, ‘If you turn me in, you’re a traitor,’” Jackson Reffitt testified as his father sat across the courtroom, unable to meet his eye. “‘And traitors get shot.’”

Guy Reffitt’s lawyer, William L. Welch, put on a muted and abbreviated defense, starting with an opening statement that lasted not much more than three minutes. He called no witnesses and presented no evidence, but argued to the jury that prosecutors had rushed to charge his client, who, he said, had never physically assaulted police.

A wild card in the case is whether Judge Dabney L. Friedrich decides in days to come to toss out the government’s central obstruction charge against Reffitt — one the government has used in hundreds of similar cases instead of more politically fraught crimes like sedition or insurrection.

In the months leading up to the trial, several defense lawyers, including Welch, challenged the use of the obstruction law, saying that prosecutors had stretched it beyond its original intent as a way to curb activities like shredding documents or tampering with witnesses in congressional inquiries.

The indictment of Tarrio, the former Proud Boys leader, underscored the ongoing nature of the Justice Department’s investigation and the continued focus on far-right groups.

Unlike Rhodes of the Oath Keepers, Tarrio was not in Washington on Jan. 6, having been arrested two days earlier for vandalizing a Black Lives Matter banner at a Black church in the city after a pro-Trump rally in December 2020. Charged with a second crime — possession of two high-capacity rifle magazines — he was ordered to leave Washington by a local judge as part of his release agreement.

But federal prosecutors said Tuesday that although Tarrio was not accused of “physically taking part in the breach of the Capitol,” he nonetheless “led the advance planning and remained in contact with other members of the Proud Boys during” the storming of the building.

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