Jury selection in 1st trial for accused Jan. 6 rioter raises questions about impartiality

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WASHINGTON — Jury selection began Monday at U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., in the case of Guy Reffitt, who is charged with five felony counts in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

The outcome of the trial could determine whether hundreds of other people charged for their roles in what transpired that day will seek to enter into plea deals with the government. For that reason, the selection of the jury has taken on heightened scrutiny. But it quickly became apparent that many in the pool of potential jurors might not be viewed as able to maintain impartiality in the case.

Rioters clash with police trying to enter the Capitol building through the front doors on Jan. 6, 2021.
Rioters clash with police trying to enter the Capitol building through the front doors on Jan. 6, 2021. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

One man questioned Monday said he once gave tours of the Capitol when he worked as a congressional page. A woman said her daughter works for the Department of Homeland Security. Another man said his stepmother served in the Trump administration, and that his father was a major donor to the former Republican president. A number of people said they live near the Capitol or have friends who work there. A few said they had former FBI agents in their family.

One at a time on Monday, the potential jurors were called to answer questions on their personal views about the riot that delayed the certification of Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 presidential election.

Reffitt, a 49-year-old Texas oil industry worker and alleged member of the far-right Three Percenters militia, is charged with bringing a firearm onto Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, interfering with police officers protecting the building from rioters and later threatening his own children if they reported him to the authorities. He is the first Jan. 6 defendant to have his case heard by a jury.

“Obviously no one can come into this courtroom with a completely blank slate about Jan. 6 because it was reported so widely, but we don’t want jurors who have formed an opinion of what happened that day,” Judge Dabney Friedrich told prospective jurors. Friedrich said jurors did not have to “guarantee impartiality,” but said the main question for her would be whether a juror’s views are so strong “that he or she cannot impartially judge guilt or innocence” in this case.

Guy Reffitt
A video frame grab shows Guy Reffitt outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Dept. of Justice)

As with many other Jan. 6 defendants, Reffitt’s attorney had requested a change of venue for the trial, arguing that jurors in Washington cannot be impartial. Friedrich also rejected a request to have Reffitt’s trial delayed until October, but said his defense could seek a change of venue again after jury selection if many of the potential jurors in Washington ended up being disqualified for signs of bias.

Friedrich, who was appointed to the U.S. District Court in Washington by President Donald Trump, began Monday’s jury selection by reading 27 questions aloud to about 80 potential jurors. Many of the questions were standard fare for prospective jurors in a criminal trial, but a number dealt specifically with the events of Jan. 6, including whether prospective jurors had followed news coverage of the riot or lived or worked near the U.S. Capitol. The judge also asked about a pamphlet that was apparently handed out to jurors by someone outside the courthouse Monday morning. It’s not clear what, exactly, was in the pamphlet.

Friedrich proceeded to question the jurors individually. Ultimately, she said, attorneys for both the prosecution and defense would need to approve a total of 40 jurors, including alternates. By the end of the day on Monday, 25 had qualified. Friedrich said she expected to finish jury selection by Tuesday morning.

Judge Dabney Friedrich
Judge Dabney Friedrich looks out from the bench during the jury selection for Guy Reffitt on Monday. (Dana Verkouteren via AP Photo)

All the prospective jurors questioned by Friedrich on Monday said they had seen news coverage of the Jan. 6 attack, though one woman said she hadn’t really followed it “because [the] media sensationalize things so I don’t know what’s true and what isn’t true.” Few if any of the prospective jurors said they were familiar with Reffitt’s case, or that they recognized him from any of the news coverage of the riot. One woman said she was aware of him only because of “the story in this morning’s [Washington] Post.”

The first day of jury selection highlighted the challenges involved in prosecuting Jan. 6 cases in Washington, where most potential jurors have not only seen at least some news coverage of the attack but, in many cases, have either direct or indirect ties to the federal government or law enforcement, both of which were targets of the rioters’ fury.

Several of the prospective jurors said they had watched the events unfold on television at their homes near the Capitol; some even appeared to become emotional while answering questions about their experiences that day. Most said they had formed opinions about the events of Jan. 6, but many insisted they would be able to put their personal views aside if selected to serve on the jury.

Some, however, were not so sure, prompting Reffitt’s defense attorney to motion for them to be removed from the jury pool.

“I don’t think I can be 100 percent impartial,” said one woman who was the first to be struck from the pool after she said she was “invested” in following the coverage of Jan. 6 and that she has “some strong thoughts that would be hard to change.”

“Speaking from my heart ... I think everyone who went in there was already guilty,” said another man who got sent home. “Everybody should be prosecuted to the max.”

Trump supporters take over the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Trump supporters take over the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Others in the pool were not dismissed despite indicating that they might already be leaning toward siding with either the prosecution or the defense.

One woman said she had followed news about the Capitol attack “pretty consistently” since Jan. 6, 2021, and mentioned recent interviews she had heard with Julie Kelly, a right-wing commentator and author of a book called “January 6: How Democrats Used the Capitol Protest to Launch a War on Terror Against the Political Right.”

On the conservative website American Greatness and on her Twitter feed, Kelly often refers to Jan. 6 defendants as “political prisoners,” and promotes the conspiracy theory that the attack on the Capitol was orchestrated by the FBI.

“Lol please let her make the jury,” Kelly tweeted in response to a potential Reffitt juror’s impartial comments Monday.

Another woman who was not dismissed after the first day said her daughter had worked for the Department of Homeland Security for the last four or five years and that when the woman heard the judge speak about the Reffitt case, she “was leaning toward the government.”

“I think the acts were just wrong against the government. It was dangerous for everyone living in the city. It was horrifying when I watched it,” said the woman, though she later went on to say she was “confident” she could decide the case based solely on information presented in court.

The U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Unlike many of the Jan. 6 defendants, Reffitt has not been accused of entering the Capitol building. According to prosecutors, when he charged at police officers outside the building, he was wearing body armor and a video camera attached to a helmet and was carrying a handgun in a waist holder as well as zip-tie handcuffs. He only retreated, prosecutors say, after an officer pepper-sprayed him in the face.

Reffitt has been charged with obstructing an official proceeding, interfering with law enforcement during a civil disorder, transporting firearms to Washington, D.C., for a civil disorder and being unlawfully present on Capitol grounds while armed with a firearm. He has also been charged with obstruction of justice based on threats he allegedly made to his teenage son and daughter upon returning from Washington, telling them to “choose a side or die” and that they would be traitors if they reported him to law enforcement, according to prosecutors. He has pleaded not guilty to all five charges against him.

Reffitt’s children are among about a dozen witnesses the prosecutors plan to call to testify against him during the trial. Other witnesses include three Capitol Police officers who interacted with Reffitt on Jan. 6, and a fellow member of the Texas chapter of the Three Percenters militia group who prosecutors say traveled with Reffitt to Washington and back to Texas between Jan. 4 and 8, 2021.

The rioters got within two doors of Vice President Mike Pence's office. See how in this 3D explainer from Yahoo Immersive.