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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Courthouse News Service
Tuesday, February 27, 2024 | Back issues
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Oath Keepers say they protected Capitol police. An officer tells jury otherwise.

Denying seditious conspiracy charges, the far-right Oath Keepers say their purpose for attending the Capitol riot was to provide police security.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The trial of Stewart Rhodes on last year's insurrection resumed after health-related delays with fierce questioning Monday of a police officer who denies claims from Rhodes and other indicted members of the Oath Keepers that they offered security to law enforcement during the Jan. 6, 2021, riot.

Over the last three weeks of trial, defense counsel for Rhodes and four associates of his far-right group have seized on videos and a photo from the riot that show two of the defendants — Kelly Meggs and Kenneth Harrelson — among a group who stood with their backs to Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn during the melee.

A former FBI agent testified last week that she could not tell from the video evidence alone what the “nature of their interaction” was. But the Oath Keepers member who snapped the photo testified earlier that they were “protecting this officer from protestors.” He also said he heard Harrelson tell that officer, “we are not here to hurt you.”

The defense calls it proof that they were shielding Dunn from rioters. But the jury heard otherwise Monday from Dunn himself. The officer merely confirmed that there was a point in time on Jan. 6 when he allowed a group of individuals wearing protective gear to stand in front of him inside the Capitol.

Quizzing the witness about his recollection, Harrelson's lawyer Brad Geyer brought up Dunn's prior testimony to the FBI in which he told agents that a group of Oath Keepers offered him assistance during the riot. Dunn maintains that none of the defendants were part of that group.

Geyer also showed Dunn a screenshot from a video in which Harrelson holds his arm out straight, suggesting that the gesture shows Harrelson was trying to protect Officer Dunn and keep protesters away from him.

Dunn resisted that framing, telling the jury he did not know if that is what the man in the photo was trying to do and that “it is hard to determine from a still shot.”

Geyer then suggested the Capitol riot was a traumatic event with effects that linger on. When Dunn conceded this point, the defense attorney pressed him on whether there could have ben “some conflation” between the officer's interactions with the defendants on Jan. 6 and a separate group of individuals wearing protective gear.

“Maybe there was one event,” Geyer suggested, “and maybe they reasonably believed they were helping you.”

“Are you suggesting I may have misconstrued the events in the locations where they took place,” the officer shot back.

Geyer went on to ask if the “confusion of the day” — the trauma, having to move up and down floors with heavy body armor, and a rifle — may have distorted his “conceptions of time.”

“It’s possible in some cases,” Officer Dunn conceded. But when asked if he “still” believes there were two separate interactions, he did not budge.

On redirect, U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy asked if there were two different groups of people wearing protective gear that Dunn interacted with on two different floors. Dunn confirmed it was true and he agreed with the prosecutor's contention that he would have noticed if the group from one floor followed him onto another floor.

When asked what assistance the defendants could have provided him that day, Officer Dunn said, “leave the building.”

Jurors also heard testimony on Monday from Capitol Police Special Agent David Lazarus, who was assigned to the protection detail of an unnamed U.S. senator on Jan. 6. Lazarus discussed how he helped “harden up,” or secure, the Senate Chamber around noon and how he assisted members of Congress and their staff out of the room and into a stairwell leading to tunnels out of the Capitol.  

Prosecutors established through questioning that Lazarus witnessed Officer Dunn engaging in an “antagonistic” conversation about politics — including the election and the “Stop the Steal” movement — at least three to four times with people wearing tactical gear. On cross-examination, Lazarus could not pinpoint what time he saw Dunn having those conversations on Jan. 6. 

Safeway District Manager Edgar Tippett also described having to close 12 stores early on Jan. 6 due to the citywide curfew and how sales that day were “significantly bad.”  

Another witness who testified Monday was Oath Keepers member Graydon Young who pleaded guilty last year to Capitol riot-related conspiracy and obstruction charges. He talked about what led him to join the Oath Keepers, his discussions with members of the group ahead of Jan. 6 about trying to stop Biden from becoming president and how he stormed the Capitol with defendants Meggs and Harrelson. 

The government’s seditious conspiracy charge requires it to show that the five defendants had an actual agreement to "overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force" the U.S. government. Trying to poke holes in that case during cross-examination, defense attorney Phillip Bright asked Young about his decision to plead guilty to conspiracy, which he described as an agreement in which more than one person agrees to commit a crime. Bright then quipped that he did not hear Young articulate in his testimony about breaching the Capitol that an actual agreement existed “with anybody to commit a crime.” 

Young responded to the attorney for Rhodes that “it was implicit to me at the time.” Bright continued a similar line of questions about what led him to breach the Capitol. Young called it “spontaneous” and said there was no explicit prior planning “to do what we did.”  

His testimony comes after another Oath Keepers affiliate, who also copped a plea dealtestified that he did not pre-plan with the three defendants to breach the Capitol. 

Rhodes, Harrelson and Meggs are standing trial with Thomas Caldwell and Jessica Watkins. They are accused of orchestrating the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, as part of a larger plot to “oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power.” 

Prosecutors say the defendants communicated about their plans via encrypted chats, stocked up on weapons and traveled across the country to carry out the attack that delayed the ceremony Congress scheduled to certify the 2020 election results. 

The Justice Department so far has charged more than 880 people in connection with the Capitol riot. As of Oct. 6, about 313 people have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, about 99 have pleaded guilty to felonies. Approximately 152 people have been sentenced to prison time. 

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, an Obama appointee, ordered two delays last week in the trial. The first delay came after Rhodes tested positive for Covid-19. The second pertains to a health issue connected to Meggs' lawyer, Stanley Woodward. While Rhodes has returned to the trial, the attorney Woodward remains absent. 

Follow @EmilyZantowNews
Categories / Criminal, Government, National, Politics

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