Appeals Court Rules for Capitol Riot Suspects in Pretrial Detention Fight

The D.C. Circuit ordered a lower court to reconsider letting two people charged in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol walk free until their trials.

A worker removes razor wire from a security fence on Capitol Hill last weekend. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (CN) — In a 2-1 decision Friday, the D.C. Circuit revived a case over whether two people charged with participating in the U.S. Capitol riot are eligible for release while awaiting trial. 

“It cannot be gainsaid that the violent breach of the Capitol on January 6 was a grave danger to our democracy, and that those who participated could rightly be subject to detention to safeguard the community,” U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Wilkins wrote in Friday’s majority opinion. “But we have a grave constitutional obligation to ensure that the facts and circumstances of each case warrant this exceptional treatment.”

The Barack Obama appointee said the panel decided to ask a district court to reconsider its decision to detain two people who entered the Capitol during the riot.

Thirty-year-old Nashville, Tennessee, resident Eric Munchel and his mother, Lisa Eisenhart, 56, attended then-President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington the morning of Jan. 6 as part of a protest against the 2020 election results. 

After joining other Trump supporters in breaching the Capitol later that day, they were eventually charged with unlawful entry, violent entry, civil disorder and conspiracy.

Senior U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, overturning a release decision by a magistrate judge, ordered both Munchel and Eisenhart to be detained pending trial because they were charged with felonies while carrying a dangerous weapon—a taser. 

Munchel and Eisenhart appealed the decision to the D.C. Circuit, contending that the district court erred by, among other things, not deferring to U.S. Magistrate Judge Chip Frensley’s factual findings that they posed no danger to society.

Both Munchel and Eisenhart, a nurse of 30 years, wore tactical vests to Trump’s rally on Jan. 6, and holstered to Munchel’s hip was a taser. Once Trump wrapped up his heated speech telling followers to march to the Capitol, the mother-and-son pair did just that. 

They milled about after arriving at the Capitol grounds and “met members of the Oath Keepers militia and Munchel bumped fists with one of them” before someone in the crowd yelled out that a police line had been broken, according to Friday’s 29-page opinion.

Footage of that day shows Munchel and his mother discussing the consequences of bringing weapons into the Capitol before stashing a fanny pack inside a backpack that was stowed on the ground. 

“Munchel contends that the only weapon in the fanny pack was a pocketknife; the government suggests that other weapons could have been inside, perhaps even a firearm,” Wilkins wrote.

Eisenhart can be seen in video evidence, some of which was recorded on Munchel’s iPhone, encouraging others to enter the Capitol. The Georgia resident verbally rejoiced when she heard that “Congress was ‘shut down’ by tear gas,” the ruling states.

Munchel and Eisenhart eventually made their way to the Senate gallery, both carrying zip ties they had found, and Munchel still carrying his taser. 

 “Treason! Treason!” Eisenhart chanted inside the gallery, according to court records. Munchel looked down at the dais and said, “I want that fucking gavel,” but did not take the gavel. 

They eventually left and a Metropolitan Police Department officer stopped Munchel and seized his taser. 

FBI agents executed a search warrant at Munchel’s apartment four days later, where they found the tactical vest he wore at the Capitol in addition to zip ties, firearms and loaded magazines. Munchel was licensed to possess those weapons, according to court documents. 

The pair later turned themselves in and faced pretrial detention hearings before Judge Frensley in the Middle District of Tennessee.

The magistrate decided that neither Munchel nor Eisenhart were flight risks and did not pose any danger to the community. Frensley issued release orders with several conditions, including home detention, GPS monitoring, refraining from possessing firearms or dangerous weapons.

But their release orders were stayed by Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell following a government appeal. In the meantime, Munchel and Eisenhart were detained.

During a Feb. 17 detention hearing in Washington, the government provided additional video evidence that appeared to show Munchel was in contact with a suspected member of the far-right Proud Boys after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. 

Wilkins wrote in Friday’s opinion that the new evidence presented to the district court had made the situation “more akin to a new hearing, and as such, the issue before the district court was not really whether to defer (or not) to a finding made by the magistrate judge on the same evidentiary record.”

“We need not break new ground in this case, because as the appellants maintain in their briefing… the government submitted substantial additional evidence to the district judge that had not been presented to the magistrate judge, including the 50-minute iPhone video, a partial transcript of the video, and several videos from Capitol CCTV,” the ruling states. “As a result, this was not an instance where the district court made its dangerousness finding based on the same record as was before the magistrate judge.”

The judge said the most appropriate route for the court to take is to send the case back for reconsideration. 

Wilkins was joined in the majority by U.S. Circuit Judge Judith Rogers, a Bill Clinton appointee.

U.S. Circuit Judge Gregory Katsas, a Trump appointee, partially dissented to Friday’s opinion, saying he would reverse the district court outright instead of remand the case.

“Munchel and Eisenhart chose to trespass—not to engage in violence, much less fight to the death. Afterwards, both voluntarily surrendered to the FBI, as the district court recognized in concluding that neither posed a flight risk,” Katsas wrote.

The dissenting judge wrote the pair’s “actual conduct belied their rhetorical bravado,” and said Munchel chose not to engage in violence during the riot even though he had ample opportunity to do so.

“As for the defendants’ attitudes towards law enforcement, the video shows that police did not seek to discourage their entry into the Capitol through an open door,” Katsas said, also pointing to a recorded interaction in which Munchel encountered an officer and said, “Sorry, guys, I still love you.”

The opinion was released the day after Trump, during an interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham, falsely claimed his followers posed “zero threat” during the violent riot. Defending the mob, the former president said some of them had “great relationships” with Capitol Police. 

The Capitol rioters caused the death of one police officer and four other people, and more than 140 were injured.

House Democrats on Thursday ramped up their efforts to investigate the attack on the Capitol, asking 10 federal agencies for government documents and communications that may lend further insight into the incident and what led up to it. 

“We have to find the truth,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “And we will, and we’re not walking away from that.” 

More than 300 people have been charged in connection to the riot and authorities have said at least 100 more could face charges.

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