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Social media posts help winnow jury pool in Oath Keepers trial

Warning of the public scrutiny in store for the closely watched case, a federal judge erred on caution when it comes to prospective jurors' internet activity.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Defense lawyers for five Oath Keepers charged with seditious conspiracy in connection to last year's riot at the U.S. Capitol successfully disqualified a member of the jury pool with a history of retweeting political posts.

The potential juror acknowledged sharing such tweets, one of which characterized Republicans as a contemptuous political force, but he said the characterization applies only to “certain” individuals within the conservative party — not all.

As for a retweet of a post describing so-called MAGA Republicans as fascist, the juror said it did not represent his current opinion and that he considers the post as “extreme.” When asked if he “likes” a lot of tweets by what the defense described as, “Republicans opposed to Trump” — Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney being a prominent one — the man said he does.

But as a lawyer at an international dispute-resolution law firm in Washington, the man said he would try his best to look at the evidence objectively if picked to be on the jury in what is shaping up to be the biggest trial related to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Prosecutors asked if he makes generalizations about Republicans, the Oath Keepers or supporters of former President Donald Trump.

The man denied this.

Asked if he tweets his own opinions, the prospective juror said he does not tweet, rather, he just scrolls through Twitter and if someone he is following posts a tweet that he likes, then he will “like” it by clicking the heart button.

But the defense moved to strike the juror for cause, arguing that he “could never” be a fair juror because of what he “published in the modern world.”

“We choose what we heart,” the attorney said.

The government meanwhile insisted the prospective juror is not publishing and told the court he does not generalize, “despite counsel’s attempt to get him to do so.” In one instance, the juror had read a book and liked a tweet about the book.

Pleading with the judge, the government reminded the court that the potential juror is a lawyer who said he can put aside his views to be an impartial juror.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta disagreed with the prosecution.

Unlike other potential jurors, the man has “expressed himself outside of court,” the Obama appointee emphasized.

Judge Mehta said he did not know whether online activity is an appropriate ground on which to strike, but did so anyway, emphasizing the public scrutiny that will await this case's resolution.

Mehta has noted throughout jury selection this week that potential jurors likely know something about the Jan. 6 insurrection, which wound up delaying the certification of the 2020 presidential election results. But what is important, Mehta underscored, is whether they can set aside their views to remain unbiased at the trial.

In proceedings expected to last up to six weeks, prosecutors intend to show that the five defendants carried out the insurrection as part of a larger plot to “oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power.” Four members of the Oath Keepers are facing seditious conspiracy charges, alongside the group's founder, Stewart Rhodes, 57, of Granbury, Texas. The government says the defendants communicated about their plans via encrypted chats, stocked up on weapons and traveled across the country to carry out the insurrection.

Judge Mehta also disqualified a man who said he started working for an energy committee in the U.S. House of Representatives after Jan. 6. And another man was struck after telling the court his background as a historian led him to see parallels between historical happenings in Europe and the events on Jan. 6. 

The prospective jury pool pulled from the nation’s capital has so far included a historian, a program analyst for the Transportation Security Agency, an antitrust attorney, a digital consultant for nonprofits and a semi-retired court reporter.  

Wednesday’s hearing ended with 36 qualified jurors, and Judge Mehta said he thinks nine more must be qualified before each side can exercise their strikes. 

Rhodes’ alleged co-conspirators standing trial alongside him in Washington are Thomas Caldwell, 68; Kelly Meggs, 53; Kenneth Harrelson, 41 and Jessica Watkins, 40.

A seditious conspiracy charge carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison. It requires prosecutors to prove to the jury that an actual agreement — to "overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force" the U.S. government — existed among the accused Oath Keepers. 

Jury selection is expected to resume Thursday and may last up to a week.

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