How Do You Seat A Jan. 6 Jury When Everyone Knows Something About It?

The judge said the “critical question” isn’t whether prospective jurors know about the Capitol attack, but whether they have “fixed opinions.”

WASHINGTON — Every person who appeared in court Monday as a prospective juror in the first Jan. 6 trial knew something about the Capitol attack, if only that it happened. But that wasn’t enough to get them sent home. Instead, the judge and the lawyers spent hours painstakingly parsing exactly what they knew, where they got their information from, and how strongly they felt about it.

By the end of the day, 25 people had made it through the first round of questioning to potentially serve as a juror in the case of Guy Reffitt. The Wylie, Texas, man is facing a five-count indictment, including charges that he brought a rifle and a handgun to Washington with the intention of supporting a “civil disorder” and that he brought the latter with him to the Capitol.

Judges so far have rejected efforts by a small number of defendants charged with storming the Capitol, including Reffitt, to move trials out of Washington, DC. In lodging attacks on the location, defense attorneys have cited the city’s high percentage of registered Democrats, the intense level of media coverage, and a pair of recent surveys that attempted to quantify the proportion of residents who already have strong negative opinions about people arrested in connection with Jan. 6.

While some prospective jurors were struck on Monday after telling the judge that they couldn’t set aside the strong opinions they had about Jan. 6, more than half of the 34 people questioned went forward without an initial objection.

US District Judge Dabney Friedrich noted at the start of the day that Reffitt’s case was unusual in that the pool of potential jurors likely would know about the underlying events. The “critical question,” she said, was to figure out if a person had “such fixed opinions” about the attack on the Capitol that they couldn’t be an impartial judge of whether Reffitt, as an individual, was innocent or guilty of the charges against him.

Some prospective jurors described seeking out information about the investigation in the months after the riot. Others described passively absorbing coverage related to Jan. 6 when they turned on a local news channel to check the weather or as they scanned headlines in the newspaper or online. Most listed national news outlets like the Washington Post and CNN as their main sources of information about Jan. 6, and expressed disapproval about what happened at the Capitol, some stronger than others.

One woman name-dropped right-wing commentator Julie Kelly as one of her primary sources of information, explaining that she liked to listen to podcasts. The woman said she had opinions about Jan. 6 and the people who participated, but didn’t elaborate, and said she thought she’d be able to set those opinions aside as a juror. She said she was taken “off guard” when she learned what the trial was about, saying she’d come into court expecting to hear a “fender bender” case. She stayed in the pool.

Most people said they didn’t recognize Reffitt. The only defendant in the Jan. 6 prosecutions to receive a repeat nod was Jacob Chansley, who is serving a 41-month prison sentence after taking a plea deal. Several prospective jurors referred to Chansley at various times as the “QAnon shaman,” a nickname often used to describe him in media reports, as well as “the guy with the horns,” a reference to the costume that Chansley was photographed wearing that day.

When prospective jurors were asked if they knew Reffitt, he’d briefly remove his mask and smile, according to pool reports from the courtroom. Friedrich has restricted in-person access for the public and the press, instead having the court stream audio or video into overflow courtrooms and a designated media room. Before jury questioning started, the judge partially denied a motion filed by a media coalition (including BuzzFeed News) seeking to secure at least one seat in the courtroom for a pool reporter; the judge will allow it for jury selection, opening presentations, and possibly closing arguments, but not the rest of the trial.

One of the few prospective jurors who said they were familiar with Reffitt was a public relations consultant who said he worked with journalists covering the investigation. The man said that he not only didn’t think that he could separate from his strong negative feelings about Jan. 6, but also that the nature of his work meant it’d be hard for him to avoid reading news and consuming outside information. He also said that he later learned that he knew a person involved in organizing the “Stop the Steal” rally before the riot and that his opinion of that person was “not a favorable one.”

The PR consultant was struck at the request of Reffitt’s lawyer, Williams Welch III. Assistant US Attorney Risa Berkower pushed back a few times on Welch’s requests to strike jurors, highlighting comments they’d made that suggested they’d try to follow the judge’s orders even if they expressed strong opinions about Jan. 6.

Other candidates who were removed from the pool included:

  • A man who told the judge that he believed everyone who went into the Capitol was guilty and “should be prosecuted to the max.”

  • A woman who identified liberal MSNBC host Rachel Maddow as a major source of information and said she would struggle to follow the judge’s instruction to set aside her opinions.

  • A man who described the attack as “beyond the pale” and said he would come in leaning toward the government.

  • A former Department of Homeland Security spokesperson who said he followed reporters who were covering Jan. 6 and didn’t think he could overcome his “bias.”

A few candidates who made it through the first day of questioning had political connections. One man explained that he used to work for Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider and had spoken with Schneider about his experience on Jan. 6 being huddled with police at the Capitol. The man said that he thought he could set aside his views on what happened, however.

Another prospective juror shared that his stepmother had served in the Trump administration as an ambassador, first to Canada and then the United Nations, a description that matches Kelly Craft. Craft was in the UN post when the Capitol was attacked, but the man said he’d never discussed Jan. 6 with her. Craft is reportedly considering a gubernatorial bid in Kentucky. The man described his father as a “major donor” to former president Donald Trump and other Republican candidates, and identified companies that his father had worked for, which match publicly available information about Craft’s husband, Joe Craft III.

Asked by the prosecutor if he’d be welcome at family events if he were chosen for the jury and voted to convict Reffitt, the man laughed and said yes, that regardless of political affiliation he thought his family felt “duty-bound” to serving their country, and that would include jury service.

The pool featured a concentration of lawyers and people who worked for the federal government or had a connection through a family member — an unsurprising situation given the location.

Some of the other potential jurors who made it through the first round included:

  • A Department of Defense employee who said he tried to get information about “different sides” from various sources, listing CNN, Fox, and Yahoo as examples.

  • A retiree who described himself as “not a real news guy” and explained that he hadn’t kept up with information related to Jan. 6 in part because he spent significant time at another home in Aruba.

  • A woman who recalled stories she’d heard about US Capitol Police officers affected by Jan. 6, but who said she believed she could be impartial.

  • A corporate lawyer for Amazon who’d received a tentative offer to work at the Justice Department in the Civil Division but who told the judge that wouldn’t make her more inclined to side with the federal prosecutors.

  • An attorney who called the events of Jan. 6 “pretty atrocious” and “frightening” but expressed confidence that she could set aside those beliefs; she also volunteered that she’d once lived in a Trump-branded property and worked at a law firm that handled bankruptcy matters related to Trump, but said she didn’t think that would affect her ability to be on the jury.

The day ended with a few question marks. One woman said she was temporarily living in Virginia while looking for a new home in DC; the judge wasn’t clear if that disqualified her and put off making a decision. A woman who said her church choir was counting on her participation on Ash Wednesday later in the week and who had upcoming travel plans to visit family stayed in the pool for now, but the judge indicated they’d only seat her on the jury as a last resort.

Friedrich said she hoped to move to opening statements by Tuesday afternoon.


Topics in this article