The first trial for one of the hundreds of US Capitol riot defendants has begun, with jury selection starting on Monday for the case against Guy Wesley Reffitt.
The Texas man is charged with bringing a gun onto Capitol grounds, interfering with police officers guarding the building, and threatening his teenage children if they reported him to authorities.
Reffitt’s trial could be a bellwether for many other Capitol riot cases, legal experts have said. A conviction would give prosecutors more leverage in plea talks with rioters facing the most serious charges. An acquittal may lead others to wait for their own day in court.
Reffitt “truly is the canary in the coal mine,” said Gregg Sofer, a former federal prosecutor who served as US attorney for the Western District of Texas from October 2020 to February 2021.
“It’ll really be interesting to see how strong a case the government has and whether or not they’re relying on evidence that, when pushed and tested, stands up. It’s going to have a huge impact going forward,” Sofer, now a partner at a law firm, told The Associated Press news agency.
More than 750 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the riot, which Democrats often describe as an insurrection that aimed to violently prevent the certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory.
More than 200 of them have pleaded guilty, mostly to misdemeanours carrying a maximum sentence of six months imprisonment. More than 100 riot defendants have been sentenced. And at least 90 others have trial dates this year.
Former President Donald Trump was impeached by the US House of Representatives for “inciting” the riots.
Reffitt is a member of a militia-style group called the “Texas Three Percenters”, according to prosecutors. The Three Percenters militia movement refers to the myth that only 3 percent of Americans fought in the Revolutionary War against the British.
On January 6, 2021, Reffitt was armed with a handgun in a holster on his waist, carrying zip-tie handcuffs and wearing body armour and a helmet equipped with a video camera when he and others charged at police officers on the west side of the Capitol, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors believe Reffitt took at least two firearms with him to Washington: an AR-15 rifle and a Smith & Wesson pistol. When FBI agents searched Reffitt’s home in Wylie, Texas, they found a handgun in a holster on a nightstand in the defendant’s bedroom. Prosecutors say photos and video of Reffitt during the riot show a handgun holster on his right hip, with what appears to be a silver object inside the holster.
On the morning of January 6, Reffitt said he planned to “do the recon and then come back for weapons hot” and sent messages about meeting at a “rendezvous point,” according to prosecutors.
“These messages, along with the weapons that Reffitt carried and the gear he wore, make clear that the defendant did not come to DC with the intention to engage in peaceful activity,” prosecutors wrote.
The siege resulted in the deaths of five people, including a police officer. The Department of Justice has said more than 235 rioters have been charged with assaulting or impeding law enforcement, injuring more than 100 officers. Rioters caused more than $1m in damage to the Capitol.
Philadelphia-based defence lawyer Justin Danilewitz, who was a federal prosecutor in New Jersey from 2012 to 2017, said a conviction in Reffitt’s case may lead to a flurry of guilty pleas by other riot defendants.
“And that can benefit defendants on occasion because it’s better than the alternative if the alternative is a conviction following a trial,” Danilewitz added.
An acquittal could inspire other defendants to “dig in their heels” and either push for a better plea offer from prosecutors or gamble a trial of their own, he said.
Defence lawyer William Welch has said there is no evidence that Reffitt damaged property, used force or physically harmed anybody. In a May 2021 court filing, Welch said none of the videos or photos shows a gun in Reffitt’s possession at the Capitol.
“In fact, neither of the police officers interviewed by the government said anything about a firearm,” he wrote.
Reffitt has been jailed since his arrest in Texas less than a week after the riot. He faces five counts: obstruction of an official proceeding, being unlawfully present on Capitol grounds while armed with a firearm, transporting firearms during a civil disorder, interfering with law enforcement officers during a civil disorder, and obstruction of justice.
The obstructing justice charge stems from threats that he allegedly made against his son, then 18, and daughter, then 16, after returning home from Washington. Reffett told his children to “choose a side or die” and said they would be traitors if they reported him to law enforcement, prosecutors said.