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Jurors in the Proud Boys trial hear the start of the seditious conspiracy case

Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, seen in May 2021, is on trial in Washington, accused of crimes related to the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol.
Chandan Khanna
AFP via Getty Images
Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, seen in May 2021, is on trial in Washington, accused of crimes related to the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol.

A federal prosecutor told jurors in the seditious conspiracy case against members of the far-right Proud Boys group that the defendants mobilized "and took aim at the heart of our democracy" on Jan. 6, 2021.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason McCullough described Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio as "leader of the conspiracy to stop the certification," with assistance from trusted lieutenants on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol that day.

"These defendants were not going to let Joe Biden become president without a fight," McCullough said.

The prosecutor played video from a 2020 presidential debate in which then-President Donald Trump told the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by." The Justice Department said the defendants took that message seriously — and later boasted online about what they had done to storm the Capitol.

McCullough said in the course of the trial, the jury may hear from Proud Boys who pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government, including John Stewart, Jeremy Bertino and Charles Donohoe.

The defendants

Tarrio did not enter the building on Jan. 6. He had been arrested days earlier for setting fire to a Black Lives Matter banner at a local church the month before, and had been barred from entering Washington, D.C., on the day of Trump's speech and rally after police found two high-capacity magazines in his car.

The other defendants include Dominic Pezzola, perhaps best known for allegedly swiping a police shield and bashing in a window at the Capitol on Jan. 6, which allowed other rioters to pour into the building; Joseph Biggs, who was featured interacting with the first rioter who shoved police barricades in a video produced by the House Select Committee that investigated the siege; Zachary Rehl, who led the Philadelphia chapter of the Proud Boys; and Ethan Nordean.

The Justice Department said several of the defendants sprang into action hours after Trump tweeted on Dec. 19, 2020, about an upcoming rally in D.C., which Trump said "will be wild." A day later, Tarrio and others allegedly created the "Ministry of Self Defense," which prosecutor McCullough said in court was "ultimately harnessed" to assault the Capitol.

Defense opening statements

Defense lawyers said Thursday that their clients hadn't planned to attack the Capitol building or delay the electoral vote count that day. They also maintain the Justice Department is overhyping the case.

Nordean's lawyer, Nicholas Smith, used his opening statement to assert that the Department of Justice's case is logically flawed, and that just because there was a riot after a protest on Jan. 6, doesn't mean his client planned for the events to unfold as they did. Smith encouraged the jury to view the case as doctors would, detached and without emotion, he said.

"After this does not mean because of this," Smith said, using the analogy of a rooster crowing and the sun rising – the second thing wasn't caused by the first.

Smith said a witness, Michale Graves, would testify for the defense during the trial to say that Nordean was not planning to storm the Capitol that afternoon because Graves, a member of a band called The Misfits, was supposed to meet Nordean at an AirBnB in D.C. to listen to music the afternoon of Jan. 6.

Tarrio's lawyer, Sabino Jauregui, said his client was being used as a scapegoat by the government. He maintained that someone had to be blamed for the insurrection and Tarrio was the "easy target" rather than intelligence and law enforcement agencies, even though they had information about potential threats to the government on Jan. 6.

Questioning of prospective jurors extended for 10 days, as lawyers probed their awareness of the far-right group and whether they had any bias about the Proud Boys. In the end, the judge seated a jury of seven men and nine women, including four alternates. One juror already has been dismissed after contracting covid.

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.