PROVIDENCE, RI (AP) – False elections helped bring the insurgents to the Capitol on Jan. 6, and now some facing criminal charges for their actions during the riot hope their credulity can save them or at least generate some sympathy.
Lawyers for at least three defendants charged in connection with the violent siege tell The Associated Press that they will accuse electoral misinformation and conspiracy theories, largely driven by then-President Donald Trump, of cheating their clients. Lawyers say those who spread this misinformation have as much responsibility for the violence as those who participated in the actual rape of the Capitol.
“Now I feel like an idiot saying that, but my faith was in him,” defendant Anthony Antonio said, speaking of Trump. Antonio said he was not interested in politics before the boredom of the pandemic brought him to conservative cable news. “I think they did a great job of convincing people.”
Following Joe Biden’s victory in last year’s presidential election, Trump and his allies have repeatedly claimed that the race was stolen, although claims have been repeatedly denied by officials on both sides, outside experts and courts of several states and their own attorney general. In many cases, baseless claims about vote spills, voting fraud and corrupt election officials spread on social media, building on Trump’s campaign to undermine faith in the elections that began long before November.
The tide of misinformation continues to spread, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson wrote Wednesday in a ruling denying the release of a man accused of threatening to kill the U.S. House Speaker. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“The steady drum beat that inspired the defendant to take up arms has not faded,” Berman wrote in his sentence ordering that Cleveland Grover Meredith Jr. continued in custody. “Six months later, the duck who stole the election is repeated daily in the mainstream media and from the corridors of state and federal government power, not to mention the former president’s almost daily thunderbolts.”
Defendants represent only a fraction of the more than 400 people charged in the failed attempt to break Biden’s certification of victory. But his arguments highlight the important role that falsehoods played in inspiring the riot, especially as many first-rate Republicans try to downplay the January 6 violence and millions more still mistakenly believe the election was stolen. .
At least one of the defendants plans misinformation to be a key part of his defense.
Albert Watkins, St. Louis representing Jacob Chansley, the so-called shaman of QAnon, compared the process to brainwashing or falling into the clutches of a cult. Repeated exposure to falsehood and incendiary rhetoric, Watkins said, ended up overflowing his client’s ability to discern reality.
“He’s not crazy,” Watkins said. “People who fell in love with Jim Jones (cult leader) and went down to Guyana, had husbands, wives and lives. And then they drank Kool-Aid.”
Similar legal arguments could not exonerate Lee Boyd Malvo, who at the age of 17 joined John Allen Mohammed in a sniper that killed ten people in the Washington, DC area, in 2002. His lawyers tried to argue that Malvo he was not responsible for his actions. because he had been deceived by old Muhammad.
Lawyers for the heiress of the newspaper Patty Hearst also argued, unsuccessfully, that her client had been brainwashed into participating in a bank robbery after being kidnapped by the radical group of the Symbionan Liberation Army .
“It’s not an argument I’ve seen win,” said Christopher Slobogin, director of the Vanderbilt Law School’s Criminal Justice Program, professor of psychiatry and mental health expert.
Slobogin said that unless the belief in a conspiracy theory is used as evidence of a larger, more diagnosable mental illness (e.g., paranoia), it is unlikely to outweigh the presumption of jurisdiction of the law.
“I don’t blame defense attorneys for filing this,” he said. “Take out all the stops and make all the arguments you can make,” he said. “But just having a false, false belief that stole the election doesn’t mean you can assault the Capitol.”
From a mental health perspective, conspiracy theories can affect a person’s actions, said Ziv Cohen, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College at Cornell University. Cohen, an expert on conspiracy theories and radicalization, often conducts mental competence exams for defendants.
“Conspiracy theories can lead people to commit illegal behavior,” Cohen said. “It simply came to our notice then. Conspiracy theories erode social capital. They erode trust in authority and institutions. “
Lawyers for Bruno Joseph Cua, a 19-year-old man accused of pushing a police officer out of the U.S. Senate chamber, attributed his client’s extremist rhetoric to social media before and after the riot. Attorney Jonathan Jeffress said Cua was “crying over what he heard and saw on social media. Mr. Cua didn’t come up with these ideas on his own; he fed them.”
In a Parler publication a day after the riot, Cua wrote: “Often the tree of freedom must be watered with the blood of tyrants. And the tree is thirsty ”.
Cua’s lawyer now describes this comment as a bewilderment from an impressionable young man and said Cua regrets his actions.
Antonio, 27, was working as a solar panel vendor on the outskirts of Chicago when the pandemic closed 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 before been interested in politics (he didn’t even vote in the presidential election), Antonio said conspiracy theories began to let him consume so that elections would be called.
Judicial background portrays Antonio as aggressive and belligerent. According to FBI reports, he threw a bottle of water at a Capitol police officer who was being dragged down the steps of the building, destroyed office furniture and was captured on camera by the body of the Capitol. police shouting, “Do you want war? We have war. 1776 again” to officers.
Antonio, who wore a patch for far-right anti-government militia group The Three Percenters, is charged with five felonies, including violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds and obstruction of law enforcement. during civil unrest.
Joseph Hurley, Antonio’s lawyer, said he will not use his client’s belief in false allegations of election 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 catch this disease,” Hurley said. Misinformation, he said, “is not a defense. It is not. But he will rise to say: that is why he was here. The reason he was there is because he was a fool and he believed what he felt on Fox News.
Associated Press writer Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix contributed to this report.