Some of the individuals facing charges for the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol building are employing a bizarre but predictable defense in the hopes of drumming up sympathy for their plight. At least three defendants claim they participated in the assault on the Capitol building because they were misled by misinformation spread by – you guessed it – former President Donald Trump.
The Associated Press reported:
Lawyers for at least three defendants charged in connection with the violent siege tell The Associated Press that they will blame election misinformation and conspiracy theories, much of it pushed by then-President Donald Trump, for misleading their clients. The attorneys say those who spread that misinformation bear as much responsibility for the violence as do those who participated in the actual breach of the Capitol.
Defendant Anthony Antonio indicated that he had misgivings about having listened to Trump when he claimed the election was stolen. “I kind of sound like an idiot now saying it, but my faith was in him.”
Antonio said he wasn’t into politics, but became more interested when boredom resulting from COVID-19 lockdowns led him to begin consuming right-leaning news and social media. “I think they did a great job of convincing people,” he added.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson wrote a decision on Wednesday denying the release of a man who allegedly threatened to kill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). In her decision, she wrote:
“Six months later, the canard that the election was stolen is being repeated daily on major news outlets and from the corridors of power in state and federal government, not to mention in the near-daily fulminations of the former president.”
At least one other defendant plans to make misinformation a key component of his defense. Albert Watkins, the attorney representing Jacob Chansley, also known as the QAnon shaman, compared his experience to brainwashing or being enthralled by a cult. The lawyer claims that “falsehood and incendiary rhetoric” eventually “overwhelmed his client’s ability to discern reality,” according to the Associated Press.
“He is not crazy,” Watkins said. “The people who fell in love with (cult leader) Jim Jones and went down to Guyana, they had husbands and wives and lives. And then they drank the Kool-Aid.”
However, those blaming their actions on Trump and conservative media might be disappointed. Christopher Slobogin, director of Vanderbilt Law School’s Criminal Justice Program, told the AP that he is doubtful this defense will work. “It’s not an argument I’ve seen win,” he said.
Slobogin indicated that the only hope such a defense could have would be if believing a conspiracy theory is used as evidence that the individual is suffering a mental illness that would preclude them from the law’s presumption of competence.
“I’m not blaming defense attorneys for bringing this up,” he told the AP. “You pull out all the stops and make all the arguments you can make.”
He concluded: ”But just because you have a fixed, false belief that the election was stolen doesn’t mean you can storm the Capitol.”
Lawyers representing Bruno Joseph Cua, a 19-year-old who allegedly shoved a police officer outside the Senate chamber, argued that his extremist rhetoric before and after the riot were also the result of social media. Attorney Jonathan Jeffress claimed his client was “parroting what he heard and saw on social media” and that he “did not come up with these ideas on his own; he was fed them.”
The day after the riot, Cua published a post on Parler in which he wrote: “The tree of liberty often has to be watered from the blood of tyrants. And the tree is thirsty.”
Cua’s attorney portrayed his comments as a “bluster” and that he regrets his actions.
Antonio, 27, had worked as a solar panel salesman in Chicago when the coronavirus pandemic shut down his place of employment. At that time, he and his roommates started watching Fox News almost all day. He began to share right-leaning content on social media.
The AP reported:
Court records portray Antonio as aggressive and belligerent. According to FBI reports, he threw a water bottle at a Capitol police officer who was being dragged down the building’s steps, destroyed office furniture and was captured on police body cameras yelling “You want war? We got war. 1776 all over again” at officers.
Antonio, who wore a patch for the far-right anti-government militia group The Three Percenters, is charged with five counts, including violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds and obstruction of law enforcement during civil disorder.
Joseph Hurley, the lawyer representing Antonio explained that he does not intend to use his client’s belief in election fraud claims as a defense, but to explain why he did what he did.
“You can catch this disease,” Hurley said to the AP. Misinformation, he said, “is not a defense. It’s not. But it will be brought up to say: This is why he was here. The reason he was there is because he was a dumbass and believed what he heard on Fox News.”
Regardless of what one believes about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, using President Trump and conservative media as a scapegoat is absurd on its face. However, as Slobogan argued, the attorneys representing these defendants must attempt to use any argument they can.
But, what is more noteworthy is how the activist media will likely use these young men in their ongoing effort to convince the American public that the riot was Trump’s fault and that right-leaning media is radicalizing people. To put it simply, media activists might just try feigning sympathy for these young men and casting them as victims of the MAGA cult that is secretly trying to overthrow the country, by stirring people up in a way that leads to more political violence. After losing the battle over the Jan. 6 commission, they’ll have to try something else, right?