Brendan Hunt’s attorneys asked a judge to block the government from arguing that his calls to kill Democratic members of Congress constituted true threats.
BROOKLYN (CN) — A man accused of threatening to kill members of Congress, both before and in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, faced a judge in Brooklyn federal court on Monday, fighting to keep out evidence that paints him as anti-Semitic and xenophobic.
Brendan Hunt, 37, is charged with threatening to kill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, writing on Facebook that he wants the Democratic officials to be publicly executed by a firing squad.
Hunt, who calls himself X-Ray Ultra online, is an assistant analyst for New York’s court system. He is accused of posting threats on Facebook, as well as the alt-right-friendly social media site Parler and a video streaming site called BitChute.
He is being held without bail ahead of his trial, and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Two days after supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol saying the 2020 election had been stolen, Hunt posted a video on BitChute, titled “Kill Your Senators.”
Speaking directly into the camera, he threatened to “go back to the U.S. Capitol” and “slaughter them all,” adding that “[i]f anybody has a gun, give me it, I’ll go there myself and shoot them and kill them,” according to the 8-page criminal complaint against Hunt.
A month before the riot, 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. [sic] And if you dont [sic] 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!” In a separate Facebook post, he allegedly called out the same Congress members, saying they “really need to be put down.”
Apart from the comment asking for a gun, Hunt’s attorneys argued Monday in a socially distanced Brooklyn courtroom that the government should not be allowed to present the statements to a jury as being threats.
“Mere advocacy of violence is protected speech,” said Leticia Olivera, of the Federal Defenders of New York.
Hunt remained facing U.S. District Judge Pamela K. Chen during the three-hour hearing, his shoulder-length brown curls obscuring his profile.
Chen read through Hunt’s allegedly threatening statements, asking those in attendance to excuse her for repeating their harsh language.
Responding to Hunt’s attorneys claims that the precise threat allegations are vague, the Obama-appointed judge said, “there’s no mystery,” and noted she was unlikely to block the government from presenting a theory that the comments constitute true threats.
Hunt’s attorneys also asked the court to keep from the jury text message exchanges between the defendant and his father, a retired family court judge from Queens, which could be construed as xenophobic, as well as anti-Semitic references.
In the video Hunt posted, he says, “this is a ZOG government … take up arms against them,” an apparently reference to the white supremacist acronym “Zionist occupied government.”
The video was 88 seconds long, an alleged dog whistle for white supremacists who idolize Adolf Hitler, as the number 8 corresponds with H, 88 representing “Heil Hitler.”
As the judge read those details Monday, Hunt, who remained nearly completely still otherwise, slightly shook his head.
On his behalf, Hunt’s attorneys argued those allegations could prejudice a jury.
Chen agreed with the government that referencing Hitler could be relevant, as opposed to invoking, for example, the Dalai Lama. That said, she noted, “he doesn’t have to be a racist in order for it to be a threat.”
The judge said she would allow the materials, and the jury would be the one to decide during trial. “It could just be raw coincidence — all argument,” she said. However, the judge ordered prosecutors to outline exactly what they plan to present, and not to go overboard.
“I’m not going to allow a raft of that stuff,” she said.
Hunt’s attorneys made a pitch to include information showing that Hunt did not intend to follow through on his alleged threats, saying he did not Google how to execute someone or buy a gun.
“That’s not the point here,” said David Kessler, from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York. If that kind of evidence is allowed, “the jury is inevitably going to start thinking of this as an intent case.”
Kessler’s team plans to call as witnesses an expert who can explain the context of the remarks surrounding the Jan. 6 riot. Chen said that would be allowed, but again warned prosecutors not to go too far.
“No dramatization,” she said. “Keep it pretty factual and non-inflammatory.”
Oral arguments are expected to continue this week. Jury selection is scheduled to begin April 19.
Another judge’s son, Aaron Mostofsky, was charged in Brooklyn federal court in January after filming himself, and being interviewed by a reporter, during the Capitol riot.