WASHINGTON (CN) — The Justice Department has indicted more than 1,000 people for their alleged role in the U.S. Capitol riot in 2021. Very few of them have emerged from the court system without at least one criminal charge.
That wasn't the case on Wednesday, after a federal judge acquitted James Beeks, 51, of two charges — making him only the second January 6 defendant to be found not guilty.
An actor by trade, Beeks was arrested in 2021 while playing Judas in a touring production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" in Minneapolis. At his hearing on Wednesday, he faced charges for knowingly entering the U.S. Capitol to obstruct the certification of the 2020 election and for interfering with law enforcement’s efforts to clear the Capitol.
Prosecutors claimed Beeks was a member of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group. Beeks, meanwhile, said he'd been "duped" into believing that the Oath Keepers were a peace-keeping group — a contention that Mehta seems to have found at least partially convincing.
Unlike with other January 6 defendants, Mehta found there was little evidence of any planning on Beeks’ part in the months leading up to the Capitol riot — or even on January 6 itself. He said it was unclear that Beeks did anything other than enter the Capitol building and that he therefore had no reason to find Beeks guilty.
In statements outside courtroom after the hearing, Beeks reiterated his innocence and said he "knew nothing about overthrowing the government."
"My purpose was to protect people from violence," Beeks said during brief remarks to reporters at the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse in Washington, D.C. "This feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders."
The acquittal leaves Beeks free of any charges stemming from the January 6 riots. Prosecutors had previously dropped four other charges against Beeks after agreeing to a stipulated bench for him and his co-defendant, Donovan Crowl.
According to the Justice Department's public database of January 6 defendants, the only other person to be completely exonerated was Matthew Martin of New Mexico. He was found not guilty in April 2022.
Beeks co-defendant, Crowl, was not so lucky. Mehta found him guilty on both charges.
While not an official member of the Oath Keepers, Crowl was a close friend and drinking buddy of Jessica Watkins, who in May was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for her role in conspiring with other members, including founder Stewart Rhodes, to stop the election certification and prepare for violence.
As he delivered his verdict, Mehta described Crowl as being “joined at the hip” with Watkins the entire day, marching next to her from the Ellipse outside the White House all the way to a hallway leading to the Senate Chamber in the Capitol.
Mehta ruled that while Crowl was not a part of the wider conspiracy, he was fully aware of the group’s goals and followed “his captain.” Crowl will appear before Mehta again in November for sentencing.
Unluckier still was Taylor Taranto, another January 6 defendant who on Wednesday crossed a different milestone as he became only the third such defendant ordered to await trial in custody.
According to the DOJ database, Taranto became the third person to be detained before trial after Troy Smocks and Thomas Sibick. Both were charged with felonies: Smocks for making threatening statements, and Sibick for assaulting police officers.
Unlike Smocks and Sibick, Taranto was only charged with misdemeanors for his participation in the riot. Other defendants have been offered bail.
Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui said he was ordering Taranto to await his trial behind bars because of a string of threatening statements and actions he had made in the days leading up to his June 30 arrest, including a since-deleted livestream he posted while driving to the National Institute for Standards and Technology in which he allegedly threatened to blow up his car.
Prosecutors also highlighted another livestream Taranto had filmed near the homes of Obama and longtime Democratic operative John Podesta, in which Taranto spoke of finding underground tunnels to enter the homes.
Faruqui denied a request that he be released to home confinement at his parent’s house in Washington state. He said that while he did not consider Taranto a serious flight risk — especially if he were to stay with his parents — the prosecution’s arguments had convinced him Taranto posed a risk to the public and elected officials.
“I am concerned that if you do go back to Washington state, there are elected officials there,” Faruqui told Taranto in court. “I’m scared that there could be catastrophic consequences.”
In the 30 months since the Capitol riot, the Justice Department has charged more than 1,000 people for their actions on Jan. 6 and sentenced approximately 561 people. The massive investigation is still ongoing, as 323 individuals connected to violent actions remain unidentified.Follow @Ryan_Knappy
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