Prosecution and Defense Sum Up at Proud Boys Jan. 6 Sedition Trial

WASHINGTON — Prosecutors at the sedition trial of five members of the Proud Boys made a final pitch to the jury on Monday, arguing that the defendants — acting as “Donald Trump’s army” — conspired to keep Mr. Trump in office after the 2020 election by leading a mob in a violent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Offering a different version of events, defense lawyers said that the far-right group had no plan to assault the Capitol that day — or to stop the certification of Mr. Trump’s defeat that was taking place inside. Instead, the lawyers said, the chaos at the Capitol unfolded spontaneously because of “herd mentality,” and the government based its case on tarring the defendants with guilt by association with Mr. Trump and other rioters who acted more violently.

The rival arguments, in Federal District Court in Washington, marked a crucial milestone in one of the most important trials so far in the Justice Department’s vast investigation of the Capitol attack. The summations, which will continue on Tuesday, came after more than three months of testimony and evidence in a proceeding plagued so often by delays that one defense lawyer apologized to members of the jury for having taken up so much of their time.

The defendants — Enrique Tarrio, Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl and Dominic Pezzola — face two conspiracy charges beyond seditious conspiracy, as well as a handful of counts related to destroying government property and assaulting or interfering with the police. One of the conspiracy charges accuses them of plotting to disrupt the election certification on Jan. 6. The other accuses them of interfering with members of Congress who were overseeing that process at the Capitol.

Conor Mulroe, a Justice Department prosecutor, presented the government’s case, saying that in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6, the Proud Boys — led by Mr. Tarrio — were wracked with despair over Mr. Trump’s defeat to Joseph R. Biden Jr. and were “thirsting for violence and organizing for action.”

“These defendants saw themselves as Donald Trump’s army, fighting to keep their preferred leader in power no matter what the law or the courts had to say about it,” Mr. Mulroe said.

Prosecutors spent more than two months introducing evidence, including hundreds of internal Proud Boys group chats and several recordings of their podcasts and meetings. The story began in September 2020, when Mr. Trump called out the Proud Boys by name during a presidential debate, telling them to “stand back and stand by.”

In a show of support for Mr. Trump, hundreds of Proud Boys descended on Washington in November and December that year for two large “Stop the Steal” rallies, both of which turned violent after nightfall. At the second of those rallies — on Dec. 12, 2020 — Jeremy Bertino, a Proud Boy from North Carolina, was stabbed in a clash with leftist counterprotesters.

Prosecutors argued that the Proud Boys felt the police had taken sides with their adversaries on the left and that leaders of the group ultimately turned against their traditional allies in law enforcement, stoking rage against the police among their rank and file. Mr. Mulroe said that anger contributed to the violence on Jan. 6.

The next step on the road to the attack, Mr. Mulroe said, took place on Dec. 19, 2020, when Mr. Trump posted a message on Twitter summoning his supporters to a “wild” protest on Jan. 6. Within days, Mr. Tarrio set up an encrypted group chat — the “Ministry of Self-Defense” — for a handpicked crew of “real men” who would represent the Proud Boys on the ground on Jan. 6.

“The Ministry of Self-Defense was a violent gang that came together to use force against its enemies,” Mr. Mulroe said. “It wasn’t to prevent violence. It was to channel it.”

Prosecutors also introduced testimony from Mr. Bertino, who pleaded guilty to sedition charges in a cooperation deal with the government. During his time on the witness stand, Mr. Bertino said that his compatriots wanted to galvanize other Trump supporters into realizing an “all-out revolution.”

He also testified that even if there were no explicit orders to attack the Capitol on Jan. 6, members of the Proud Boys believed there was an implicit agreement to band together and take the lead in stopping Mr. Biden from entering the White House.

“I expected them to save the country by any means necessary, up to and including violence,” Mr. Bertino said.

On Jan. 6 itself, Mr. Mulroe said, the Proud Boys chose to probe the defenses at the Capitol at the lightly guarded Peace Circle on the west side of the building at exactly the moment that a joint session of Congress was gathering inside for the certification ceremony. Over the next hour or so, members of the group played a leading role in several breaches of police lines outside the Capitol — and in the smashing of the first window at the building itself.

“This was a national disgrace,” Mr. Mulroe said, adding that for the five defendants, “this was mission accomplished.”

During the trial, lawyers for the Proud Boys argued that prosecutors blamed the defendants for the belligerent language used by their compatriots in group chats and for the violent actions of others in the mob at Capitol. The lawyers reprised those arguments on Monday with an important addition: The group’s connections to Mr. Trump, they said, were introduced only to inflame and confuse the jury.

“The government’s entire case was built on this kind of misdirection and innuendo,” said Nicholas Smith, Mr. Nordean’s lawyer.

Mr. Smith said Mr. Bertino and Matthew Greene, another Proud Boy who testified for the government, were “useless” prosecution witnesses, noting that both men testified they were unaware of any plan to subvert the democratic process. During their monthlong case, the defense introduced testimony from other Proud Boys — including one who was working as an F.B.I. informant — who also disputed the idea that any plot existed.

Other F.B.I. informants in the Proud Boys failed to tell their handlers about any plan by the group to stop the election certification, Mr. Smith said, suggesting that none existed.

Two of the defendants — Mr. Rehl and Mr. Pezzola — testified to that effect as well (though both men lost their cool under questioning by the government). During her closing argument, Carmen Hernandez, Mr. Rehl’s lawyer, raised free speech issues, saying that while her client and his co-defendants may have used ugly or violent language before Jan. 6, that was not a crime.

“If you don’t like what some of them say,” Ms. Hernandez said, “that doesn’t make them guilty.”

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