WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Wednesday found that a New Mexico man “reasonably believed” that police officers let him into the US Capitol during the Jan. 6 breach, finding defendant Matthew Martin not guilty of all charges.
Announcing his decision from the bench, US District Judge Trevor McFadden said that although prosecutors argued there were numerous instances when Martin would have been aware that he wasn’t allowed on Capitol grounds or inside the building — as he walked past fences with signs saying “AREA CLOSED” and recorded video of a broken window, blaring alarms, police in riot gear, and people who appeared to have encountered tear gas — those were outweighed by Martin’s “plausible” belief that he had permission because officers didn’t try to stop him from entering.
McFadden said that Martin’s conduct was as “minimal and non-serious” as the judge could imagine for someone who went into the Capitol on Jan. 6. He said that Martin seemed to be a “silent observer” of the scene and didn’t try to crowd the police, protest, or wave the “Trump” flag that he was carrying. Martin appeared “quiet” and “orderly” as he walked inside the building, filmed video inside the Rotunda similar to how the media would behave, and didn’t appear to interfere with officers as he filmed a clash with rioters later in the afternoon on a north terrace of the building.
The verdict represented an early test of efforts by some Jan. 6 defendants to argue that police allowed them to enter the Capitol, or that they believed they had permission because no officer told them to stop. It’s the third trial related to Jan. 6 to finish since the insurrection. Other judges presiding over Jan. 6 cases aren’t bound by McFadden’s findings, but other defendants could now point to his analysis of what it would take to find a nonviolent participant in the breach of the Capitol guilty of federal crimes.
McFadden, one of the court’s newer judges confirmed under former president Donald Trump, has emerged as one of the more skeptical members of the DC bench when it comes to the Justice Department’s charging decisions in Jan. 6 cases. In other cases, he’s questioned whether prosecutors were “even-handed” in their treatment of people charged in connection with the Capitol attack as compared to previous protests, a comment that prompted public disagreement from one of his colleagues, US District Judge Tanya Chutkan.
Martin took the rare step of testifying in his own defense this week; his case was decided by the judge at a bench trial, not by a jury. He was unapologetic about joining the crowd that flooded the building as lawmakers gathered to certify the results of the election. He described Jan. 6 as “magical,” even as he acknowledged that some “bad things” had happened and said that he didn’t regret coming to Washington, although he might have stayed away from the Capitol.
More than 200 people have pleaded guilty so far to misdemeanors offenses alone as part of agreements with the government. Hundreds more misdemeanor-only cases are pending, and the outcome of early trials — and whether judges accept or reject the government’s overarching theory of how to charge nonviolent participants — is likely to affect whether more defendants accept a deal or take their chances at trial.
Martin testified that he’d made plans to come to DC after seeing a tweet in December 2020 from Trump calling on supporters to come for a “wild” protest. He said he traveled alone — his brother turned down an invitation to go with him — and didn’t know anyone else who went. At the time, he was a longtime employee of a private contractor for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration and worked as a senior engineer at a facility in Los Alamos, New Mexico; he was fired after being charged, he said.
The crux of Martin’s defense was that, in his own words, he was “let in” by two US Capitol Police officers who were standing in the doorway when he entered and made no attempt to stop him. He argued that one of the officers waved him through, and his lawyer showed a zoomed in video that appeared to show the officer making gestures with his hands; from the vantage point of the courtroom gallery, it wasn’t clear who the officer was gesturing to or why.
Other defendants charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack have claimed in social media posts or interviews with federal investigators that police allowed them to enter the building, court filings show. Some have argued that they thought they had authority to go onto the grounds or into the building because no officer told them to stop, or there were simply no officers around. There’s also a far-right conspiracy theory that Jan. 6 was a “false flag” operation planned by government agents to entrap Trump supporters.
Videos released in the Jan. 6 cases often show police officers vastly outnumbered by the crowd breaching the building’s entrances. Some rioters fought against officers who did try to hold them off, using their fists and an assortment of weapons, including chemical sprays, flagpoles, pieces of metal or wood, stolen police riot shields, and other objects they found on the ground.
When Martin entered the Capitol through a set of doors on the east side, there were two US Capitol Police officers standing on either side. Video played at trial showed them standing still and for the most part not reacting to the crowd. US Capitol Police Inspector John Erickson testified that given the large number of people, the officers understood they couldn’t stop them from coming in, but could only observe and try to make sure no one got hurt; Erickson wasn’t one of the two officers but spoke generally about the security perimeter and police response.
McFadden said he wasn’t convinced that one of the officers actually waved Martin in. But his interpretation of the video was that Martin had waited to enter while the officer leaned forward to speak with another person, and then leaned back, reopening the passageway; Martin tapped the officer on the shoulder and the officer leaned back further. The judge said he found Martin “largely credible” in his description of events, although he also thought the defendant “shaded” his testimony at times and minimized his actions.
The judge stressed that he wasn’t criticizing the officers for how they’d handled the situation, and credited the testimony that they were outnumbered. But he said that Martin’s interpretation of their demeanor was plausible, especially since he’d mostly encountered peaceful protesters on his way to the Capitol on the east side.
Martin’s trial was the fourth since the insurrection — a jury trial against a former local police officer from Virginia has been taking place at the same time this week — and the second to go before McFadden. Last month, McFadden presided over a bench trial for Couy Griffin, the founder of Cowboys for Trump and an elected commissioner in Otero County, New Mexico. Like Martin, Griffin was charged solely with misdemeanor crimes, although Griffin didn’t go inside the building. McFadden handed down a split verdict, finding Griffin guilty of illegally being in a restricted area, but not guilty of disorderly conduct.
Martin has no direct connection to Griffin, but his trial showed how each of the hundreds of pending prosecutions are connected, and the ripple effects that a decision or outcome in one case can have on others. Martin’s lawyer, Dan Cron, acknowledged during the proceedings that he’d likely lose any attempt at relitigating some of Griffin’s unsuccessful legal challenges to how the government had applied certain criminal charges generally to the events of Jan. 6, now that McFadden had rejected them.
Martin faced four charges: illegally being in a restricted building or grounds, disorderly or disruptive conduct in a restricted area, disorderly conduct in the Capitol, and parading, demonstrating, or picketing in the Capitol. The first two counts carry up to a year in prison, while the second two have maximum sentences of six months behind bars. They’re the most common set of charges filed across the entire Jan. 6 prosecution effort.
Martin took the stand to walk the judge through his trip to DC. He said he’d gone to the “Stop the Steal” rally at the Ellipse near the White House the morning of Jan. 6, but went back to his hotel before it finished because he was cold, hungry, and needed to use the bathroom. He denied that he knew a mob was attempting to breach the Capitol when he set out again around 2 p.m. He said he’d been watching the certification proceedings on CSPAN before he left. He maintained that when he later texted, “I was in the hotel when I got word the capital was breached,” he was referring to going back to his hotel after leaving the Capitol, not before.
Martin’s lawyer argued the government failed to prove that Martin had knowingly entered a restricted area when he walked up to the Capitol and went inside, spending several minutes in the Rotunda before police moved in to clear the building. Martin also insisted that he didn’t do much of anything while he was there, let alone engage in conduct that would disrupt official government business or qualify as “parading, picketing, or demonstrating.”
The government’s case highlighted videos that captured Martin’s approach to the Capitol and his time inside, noting instances when it seemed like he should have been aware that he was in a place where he wasn’t supposed to be. Martin offered his own explanations, which the government characterized as after-the-fact rationalizations and, in some instances, lies.
He walked along a sidewalk lined with metal bike racks and fences featuring white signs with red lettering that read, “AREA CLOSED.” Martin said he thought the signs only applied to certain sections of the grounds. He admitted he stepped over a fence and walked across a grassy area, but said he’d seen other people do it and thought it was a shortcut. A video he took on his phone showed a broken window on a Capitol door and recorded a blaring alarm; he said he hadn’t noticed the window and didn’t remember the alarm, but suggested he might have thought someone pressed a wrong button or it was coming from another source. His video showed someone dealing with what appeared to be the aftereffects of a chemical spray, but he disputed that he understood that at the time and denied that a voice recorded in the video noting “tear gas” was him.
As DC police officers arrived in the Rotunda and began pushing people toward exits, Martin said he wasn’t tall enough to see what was happening. He claimed he’d left once he realized police were clearing out the room. When the prosecutor noted that surveillance footage showed Martin standing still and at one point moving closer to the crowd confronting police, Martin said he’d decided to leave and was just looking in that direction.
Later in the day, Martin exchanged texts with a supervisor who he said was also a friend. He wrote: “It was beautiful. I will remember today for the rest of my life.” Asked by Assistant US Attorney Michael Romano what he meant, Martin replied that he’d “enjoyed” himself and described Jan. 6 as a “magical day in many ways,” even though he knew “some bad things” happened. Romano asked if Martin understood that police officers involved in responding to the attack had died. Martin pushed back on the notion that those deaths were directly caused by events on the ground. Romano then asked if Martin knew that several members of the crowd had died; Martin said he did.
Martin maintained a generally positive attitude about his experience and downplayed the violence that took place. Romano noted that when Martin traveled to DC a few weeks ago to attend Griffin’s trial, he’d spoken with an airport employee and compared Jan. 6 to a “block party.” Martin said he’d been referring to events outside the Capitol, but then also made clear he didn’t regret going to DC.
“I had felt better for coming,” he said.
Martin admitted that he avoided engaging with the supervisor’s texts probing whether or not he’d gone inside the Capitol, saying that because of her left-leaning politics, he thought she might misinterpret messages and he wanted to explain in person. He pushed back on the government’s theory that he was trying to avoid jeopardizing his security clearance at work.
When the supervisor texted Martin, “You can’t overrun the capital building,” he’d replied, “Actually you can, rather easily I might add. Not as much security as you think. Our numbers were freaking huge. They were not prepared.” Asked by Romano about that message, Martin said he understood how it might be “misread,” but insisted it was a sarcasm-laced response to the supervisor’s use of the word “can’t,” given what had actually happened.
McFadden said that Martin’s texts and his decision not to tell his supervisor right away offered “some evidence” that Martin knew he was guilty of crimes, but that his explanation for why he’d want to avoid having an “awkward” conversation over text was plausible.