WASHINGTON: A jury on Thursday (May 3) convicted four members of the far-right Proud Boys militia group including its former leader Enrique Tarrio of seditious conspiracy, finding they plotted to attack the US Capitol on Jan 6, 2021, in a failed bid to block Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s election victory.
The convictions after a trial lasting nearly four months handed another victory to the US Justice Department as it pursues criminal charges against more than 1,000 people arising from the Capitol rampage by supporters of Republican then-President Donald Trump. Several members of another far-right militia group, the Oath Keepers, were convicted in earlier trials.
In addition to Tarrio, Proud Boys members Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs and Zachary Rehl were convicted of seditious conspiracy under a Civil War-era law – a charge that can carry up to 20 years in prison.
The jury did not reach a verdict on seditious conspiracy or conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding for Dominic Pezzola, the only defendant in the case who did not play a leadership role in the organization.
The judge instructed the jurors to resume deliberations on two outstanding counts for which they had not reached a verdict.
The jury also found Tarrio, Nordean, Biggs, Rehl and Pezzola guilty of other felonies including obstructing an official proceeding, a charge that also can carry up to 20 years in prison, as well as several other crimes including conspiring to impede Congress from performing their duties and obstructing law enforcement during a civil disorder.
Nordean, Biggs, Rehl and Tarrio were acquitted on charges of assaulting or impeding police, though Pezzola was convicted on that count.
More than 500 people have pleaded guilty to charges brought by the Justice Department related to the Capitol riot and about 80 others have been convicted during trials. These included Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and several of that group’s members.
The trial of the Proud Boys members was the longest of any of those arising from the Capitol attack, with the 12-member jury in federal court in Washington hearing about 50 days of testimony since January.
During closing arguments, prosecutor Conor Mulroe told jurors that the Proud Boys viewed themselves as a “fighting force lined up behind Donald Trump and ready to commit violence on his behalf” in order to overturn his 2020 election defeat.
Prosecutors told the jury that Tarrio and the other defendants, some of whom led state chapters, purchased paramilitary gear for the attack and urged members of the self-described “Western chauvinist group” to descend on Washington.
Of the five members charged, all but Tarrio entered the Capitol during the attack, with prosecutors saying they were among the first to charge past barricades erected to protect the building. Tarrio was not in Washington that day, but prosecutors said he helped direct the attack from Baltimore after he was ordered by a judge to stay out of Washington following his Jan 4 arrest for burning a Black Lives Matter banner at a church.
The rampage occurred on the day when Congress was voting on formally certifying Biden’s victory in the November 2020 election, with rioters attacking police with a variety of weapons. Shortly before the riot, the Republican Trump gave an incendiary speech to supporters urging them to go to the Capitol and “fight like hell” and repeated his false claims that the election was stolen from him throughout widespread voting fraud.
Five people including a police officer died during or shortly after the riot, and more than 140 police officers were injured.
To mobilize, according to prosecutors, Tarrio, Rehl, Nordean and Biggs created what they called the Ministry of Self Defense, comprising about 65 Proud Boys members who exchanged encrypted messages.
Pezzola was also charged with robbery for stealing a police shield that prosecutors said he used to smash a window, allowing other rioters to enter the Capitol. He was convicted of that charge.
Defence lawyers told the jury their clients had no plans to attack the Capitol and had travelled to Washington merely to protest. The defence also sought to blame Trump, saying he was the one who urged protesters to descend on the Capitol.
“They want to use Enrique Tarrio as a scapegoat for Donald Trump and those in power,” Tarrio’s attorney Nayib Hassan said of the prosecutors during his closing argument to jurors.