PROVIDENCE, RI – Lies about the election helped bring insurgents to Capitol Hill on Jan.6, and now some who face criminal charges for their actions during the riot are hoping their gullibility will save them or at least spark them. sympathy.
Lawyers for at least three defendants charged in connection with the violent siege told The Associated Press they would blame election misinformation and conspiracy theories, largely pushed by then-President Donald Trump, for misleading their customers. Lawyers say those who spread this misinformation bear as much responsibility for the violence as those who participated in the actual violation of the Capitol.
“I sound a bit of an idiot saying it now, but my faith was in him,” defendant Anthony Antonio said of Trump. Antonio said he was not interested in politics until boredom from the pandemic drove him to conservative cable news and right-wing social media. “I think they did a great job convincing people.”
After Joe Biden’s victory in last year’s presidential election, Trump and his allies have repeatedly claimed that the race has been stolen, even though the allegations have been repeatedly refuted by officials on both sides, outside experts and courts from several states and Trump’s own attorney general. In many cases, baseless claims about ballot dumps, voter fraud and corrupt election officials have been amplified on social media, bolstering Trump’s campaign to undermine confidence in the election that began long before November.
The wave of disinformation continues to spread, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson wrote on Wednesday in a decision denying the release of a man accused of threatening to kill U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“The steady drumbeat that prompted the accused to take up arms has not gone away,” Berman wrote in his ruling ordering Cleveland Grover Meredith Jr. to remain in custody. “Six months later, the duck that the election was stolen is repeated daily in major news outlets and in the halls of power within state and federal government, not to mention the almost daily fulminations from the former president.”
The defendants represent only a fraction of the more than 400 people indicted in the unsuccessful attempt to disrupt Biden’s certification of victory. But their arguments underscore the important role that the lies played in inspiring the riot, especially as many high-profile Republicans try to downplay the January 6 violence, and millions more still mistakenly believe that the election was stolen.
At least one of those defendants plans to make disinformation a key part of his defense.
Albert Watkins, the St. Louis lawyer representing Jacob Chansley, the so-called QAnon Shaman, has compared the process to brainwashing, or falling into the clutches of a cult. The repeated exposure to lies and inflammatory rhetoric, said Watkins, ultimately overwhelmed his client’s ability to discern reality.
“He’s not crazy,” Watkins said. “The people who fell in love with (cult leader) Jim Jones and went down to Guyana, they had husbands and wives and lives. And then they drank the Kool-Aid.”
Similar legal arguments failed to exonerate Lee Boyd Malvo, who at 17 joined John Allen Mohammed in a sniping spree that killed 10 people in the Washington, DC area in 2002. His attorneys have tried to argue that Malvo was not responsible for his actions because he had been deceived by former Mohammed.
Lawyers for newspaper heiress Patty Hearst also argued, unsuccessfully, that their client was brainwashed into participating in a bank robbery after being kidnapped by the radical Symbionese Liberation Army group.
“It’s not an argument that I saw winning,” said Christopher Slobogin, director of the criminal justice program at Vanderbilt Law School, professor of psychiatry and expert in mental skills.
Slobogin said that unless belief in a conspiracy theory is used as evidence of a larger, diagnosable mental illness – say, paranoia – it is unlikely to overcome the presumption of competence of the law. .
“I don’t blame the defense lawyers for raising this issue,” he said. “You go out of your way and make whatever points you can make,” he said. “But just because you have a false belief that the election was stolen doesn’t mean you can storm the Capitol.”
From a mental health perspective, conspiracy theories can impact a person’s actions, said Ziv Cohen, professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College at Cornell University. Cohen, an expert on conspiracy theories and radicalization, often performs mental competency exams for defendants.
“Conspiracy theories can lead people to commit illegal behavior,” Cohen said. “That’s one of the dangers. Conspiracy theories erode social capital. They erode trust in authority and institutions.”
Lawyers for Bruno Joseph Cua, a 19-year-old accused of pushing a police officer out of the US Senate chamber, attributed his client’s extremist rhetoric before and after the riot to social media. Lawyer Jonathan Jeffress said Cua was “reproducing what he had heard and seen on social media. Mr. Cua did not come up with these ideas on his own; he fed them ”.
In a Parler posting a day after the riot, Cua wrote: “The tree of liberty must often be watered with the blood of tyrants. And the tree is thirsty.”
Cua’s attorney now characterizes these comments as bluster from an impressionable youngster and said Cua regrets his actions.
Antonio, 27, was working as a solar panel salesman in suburban Chicago when the pandemic ended his job. He and his roommates started watching Fox News most of the day, and Antonio started posting and sharing right-wing content on TikTok.
Although he had never been interested in politics before – or even voted in a presidential election – Antonio said he was starting to be consumed by conspiracy theories that the election was rigged.
Court records describe Antonio as aggressive and belligerent. According to FBI reports, he threw a water bottle at a Capitol Police officer who was dragged up the steps of the building, destroyed office furniture and was captured by police cameras shouting “You. want war? We have war. 1776 once again “to officers.
Antonio, who wore a crest for the anti-government far-right militia The Three Percenters, is charged with five counts, including violent entry and disorderly conduct on the Capitol grounds and obstruction of the forces of the order during civil unrest.
Joseph Hurley, Antonio’s lawyer, has said he will not use his client’s belief in bogus allegations of voter fraud to try to exonerate him. Instead, Hurley will use them to argue that Antonio was an impressionable person who was exploited by Trump and his allies.
“You can get this disease,” Hurley said. Misinformation, he said, “is not a defense. It is not. But it will come up to say: This is why he was here. The reason he was there is because that he was an idiot and believed what he heard on Fox News. “