First Federal Trial on Capitol Riot Activity Opens in New York

Brendan Hunt is charged with threatening to murder a United States official. His attorneys say he made a mistake in posting comments and videos online — but didn’t commit a crime.

Named for President Theodore Roosevelt, the federal courthouse at 225 Cadman Plaza East on Tillary Street in Brooklyn, New York City. (Source: AIA Guide to NYC)

BROOKLYN (CN) — Prosecutors told a jury Wednesday in federal court in Brooklyn that a man’s online social media posts talking about killing members of Congress, leading up to and following the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot, constitute true threats against the officials’ lives. 

Opening arguments in the trial of Brendan Hunt came after nearly three days of jury selection. The 37-year-old Queens man is accused of making threats to kill Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

In December, Hunt allegedly posted on Facebook saying, “Trump, we want actual revenge on democrats. Meaning, we want you to hold a public execution of pelosi aoc schumer etc. And if you dont do it, the citizenry will.” 

He continued, according to prosecutors: “We’re not voting in another rigged election. Start up the firing squads, mow down these commies, and lets take america back!” 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Francisco Navarro delivered opening arguments for the government. 

“The defendant’s threats were specific, they were scary and they were violent,” Navarro said, before displaying the text of Hunt’s posts for members of the 12-person jury, seated in the gallery of the courtroom to accommodate social distancing. 

Hunt did not attend the Capitol riots. “The threat itself is the crime,” Navarro argued, and not whether the defendant intended to follow through. 

“You’re going to see and hear him threaten to kill members of Congress,” he told the jury. Hunt would tell the court himself that he wanted the elected officials to be afraid to go out in public, go to restaurants or get on a plane, according to Navarro. 

Following the Capitol riots, Hunt posted a video on BitChute, a streaming platform, where he speaks directly into the camera. 

“We need to go back to the U.S. Capitol when all of the Senators and a lot of the Representatives are back there, and this time we have to show up with our guns,” Hunt said. “And we need to slaughter these motherfuckers.” 

In the video, titled “Kill Your Senators,” Hunt said that “[i]f anybody has a gun, give me it, I’ll go there myself and shoot them and kill them,” according to an 8-page criminal complaint

The trial marks the first federal prosecution related to the storming of the Capitol in January by supporters of former President Donald Trump. 

Jan Rostal, Hunt’s attorney, argued Wednesday that the posts were made “in the middle of a vitriolic time in our history,” where people felt safe to say things “in the Twittersphere, if you will, that they wouldn’t say or do in person.” 

Rostal, of the Federal Defenders of New York, called Hunt’s video immature, and pointed out that some of his interactions on Facebook were in direct response to Trump. 

“You can condemn him as an idiot or a clown, an immature person who was swept up in Trump’s rhetoric,” Rostal said. “This is not a popularity contest. It’s not an election.” 

Hunt’s comments were embedded online among thousands of others, Rostal argued, and there is no evidence that the members of Congress targeted saw the posts, or the “Kill Your Senators” video, prior to Hunt’s arrest — and her client did not stalk, harass or even contact the officials. 

As for the video title, Rostal called it “a ridiculous statement for someone who says in the video that he doesn’t even have a gun.”

“There was a lot of political hyperbole coming from Mr. Hunt, but nothing that suggests he thought he had any influence over these folks,” Rostal said. 

She proceeded to rattle off comments on Hunt’s posts, saying that the crowd had taken down Hunt on their own, calling for him to remove his “silly little performance.” 

“He’s already been judged in the marketplace of ideas,” Rostal said. “He made a mistake. He didn’t commit a crime.”  

Prosecutors called their first witness at the tail end of Wednesday’s court appearance, questioning the FBI employee who received a tip about Hunt’s video, and playing the video clip for the jury. 

Hunt’s attorneys will cross-examine the FBI witness when trial resumes on Thursday. 

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