WASHINGTON (AP) — A New Mexico elected official stood trial before a judge — not a jury — charged with deciding whether he is guilty of illegally entering the U.S. Capitol on the day a pro-Trump mob disrupted certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory.
U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden is set to hear closing arguments from attorneys on Tuesday in the case against Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin, whose trial in Washington, DC, is the second among hundreds of people charged with crimes feds linked to January 6. 2021, siege.
The judge heard testimony Monday from three government witnesses. Griffin’s attorney said he does not plan to call any defense witnesses.
The case against Griffin is unlike most Capitol Riot lawsuits. He is one of the few riot defendants who is not charged with entering the Capitol or engaging in violent or destructive behavior. He claims to have been selectively prosecuted for his political views.
Griffin, one of three commissioners from Otero County in southern New Mexico, is one of a handful of riot defendants who have held public office or run for office. leadership of the government in the two and a half years preceding the attack.
He is one of only three riot defendants who have requested a trial en banc, meaning a judge will decide his case without a jury.
Griffin, a 48-year-old former rodeo rider and former pastor, helped found a political committee called Cowboys for Trump. He had sworn to himself to arrive at the courthouse on horseback. Instead, he showed up Monday as a passenger in a pickup truck that had a horse trailer in the back.
Griffin is charged with two misdemeanors: entering and remaining in a restricted building or lot and disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or lot.
A key question in Griffin’s case is whether he entered a restricted area while Pence was still present on Capitol grounds, a prerequisite for the US Secret Service to invoke access restrictions.
Griffin’s attorneys said in a court filing that Pence had already left the restricted area before the earliest Griffin could have entered it, but Secret Service Inspector Lanelle Hawa said Pence never left the area. regulated during the riot.
Hawa said officers took Pence from his Capitol office to a secure location at an underground loading dock in the Capitol complex. Pence remained at the loading dock for four to five hours and never left the security perimeter until the joint session of Congress resumed on the night of Jan. 6, Hawa said.
Defense attorney Nicholas Smith asked Hawa if it was Pence’s decision to stay there for hours.
“I can’t answer that,” she said.
Smith said prosecutors apparently believe Griffin engaged in disorderly conduct while peacefully leading a prayer on the steps of the Capitol.
“It’s offensive and untrue,” Smith told the judge during his brief opening statements.
Prosecutors made no opening statement. Their first witness was Matthew Struck, who joined Griffin at the Capitol and served as his videographer. Struck has an immunity agreement with prosecutors for his testimony.
After attending President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, Griffin and Struck walked through barriers and up a flight of stairs to enter a stage that was under construction on the lower west terrace of the Capitol for the Biden’s inauguration, prosecutors say.
Prosecutors released video clips showing Griffin moving through the crowd that formed outside the Capitol, where police used pepper spray to quell the rioters.
“I love the smell of napalm in the air,” Griffin said in an apparent reference to a line from Robert Duvall’s character in the war movie “Apocalypse Now.”
After scaling a rock wall and entering a restricted area outside the Capitol, Griffin said, “This is our house…we should all be armed,” prosecutors say. He called it a “great day for America” and added, “People are showing they’ve had enough,” prosecutors said.
Struck testified that he and Griffin went to the Capitol to find a place to pray. Smith asked Struck if anyone seemed to be “pissed off” by the prayer led by Griffin.
“They started chanting ‘Pray for Trump,'” Struck replied. “Looks like they’ve been calm and listening to Couy.”
In a court filing, prosecutors called Griffin “an incendiary provocateur and fabulist who engages in racist invective and offers baseless conspiracy theories, including that Communist China stole the 2020 presidential election.”
Griffin’s attorneys say hundreds, if not thousands, of others did exactly what Griffin did on Jan. 6 and were not charged with any crime.
“The evidence will show that the government selected Griffin to be prosecuted based on the fact that he gave a speech and led a prayer on Capitol Hill, that is, selected him based on ‘a protected expression,’ they wrote.
More than 770 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the Capitol riot. More than 230 riot defendants have pleaded guilty, mostly to misdemeanors, and at least 127 of them have been convicted. About 100 more have trial dates.
Earlier this month, a jury convicted Texas man Guy Wesley Reffitt of storming the Capitol with a holstered handgun during the first trial of a riot defendant. of the Capitol. Jurors also found him guilty of preventing Congress from certifying the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, interfering with police officers guarding the Capitol, and threatening his two teenage boys if they reported him to the law enforcement.
Conviction of Reffitt on all charges could give prosecutors more leverage in negotiating plea deals in many other cases or discourage other defendants from going to trial. The outcome of Griffin’s trial could also have a ripple effect, helping others decide whether to let a judge or jury decide their case.
Associated Press writer Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix contributed to this report.