Local woman's Capitol riot case going to trial

Feb. 2—The day before jury selection was to start for several members of a militia group charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, a Thomasville woman made a last-minute request for her case to be separated from the others.

Laura Steele sought instead in a request filed on Tuesday to have a bench trial, in which the judge alone would hear the evidence and arguments and would issue the verdict. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta rejected that request on Wednesday.

"Trial by jury is the constitutional norm, and the nature, gravity and public interest in Ms. Steele's case weighs heavily against a bench trial," Mehta wrote.

Steele is one of six members of the Oath Keepers militia whose trial was to begin with jury selection Wednesday. For procedural reasons, jury selection was pushed back to today.

Steele, who joined the Oath Keepers just a short time before Jan. 6, and the others are accused of participating in what prosecutors say was an organized effort to break into the Capitol to stop Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.

She also is accused of destroying evidence after she returned home. Unlike two recent, high-profile trials of Oath Keepers members, none of this current group are charged with seditious conspiracy.

Steele is just one of the latest Jan. 6 defendants to seek a bench trial in hopes that a judge might issue a more lenient verdict than a jury of Washington, D.C., residents.

However, an analysis posted Monday by Roger Parloff, a lawyer who is the senior editor of the Lawfare blog, comparing the 19 jury trials that have been held in Jan. 6 cases so far to the 16 bench trials found that the outcomes have been strikingly similar.

"As of Jan. 26, the government had won convictions on 89% of the counts it had tried before juries (146 out of 164), while it had won convictions on 88% of counts it tried before judges (108 out of 123)," Parloff wrote.

And that's despite 10 of the 16 bench trials being held before Republican appointees, including six before U.S. District Judge Trevor N. McFadden, an appointee of Donald Trump.

Steele's lawyer, Peter Cooper, had argued that the events of Jan. 6 and ongoing news related to Jan. 6 and to people who deny the results of the 2020 election have traumatized Washington-area residents.

"Ms Steele's case is tied to an event that was so impactful on the psyche of District residents that it is per se impossible for local jurors to reach a fair and impartial verdict," Cooper wrote.

Mehta said the evidence provided by the jury trials held so far indicate otherwise, particularly pointing to the seditious conspiracy trial of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and other leaders of the group.

"Ms. Steele's concern about the capacity of a District of Columbia jury pool to view the evidence fairly and objectively is flatly contradicted by the juries' decisions in the prior Rhodes trials, in which the juries returned mixed verdicts as to nearly every defendant," Mehta wrote.