Proud Boys Convicted of Seditious Conspiracy

The worst of the worst Capitol Riot players have been brought to justice.

AP (“Proud Boys’ Tarrio guilty of Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy“):

Former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and three other members of the far-right extremist group were convicted Thursday of a plot to attack the U.S. Capitol in a desperate bid to keep Donald Trump in power after the Republican lost the 2020 presidential election.

A jury in Washington, D.C., found Tarrio and three lieutenants guilty of seditious conspiracy after hearing from dozens of witnesses over more than three months in one of the most serious cases brought in the stunning attack that unfolded on Jan. 6, 2021, as the world watched on live TV.

Jurors cleared a fifth defendant — Dominic Pezzola — of the sedition charge, though he was convicted of other serious felonies. The judge excused the jury without delivering a verdict on some counts — including another conspiracy charge for Pezzola — after jurors failed to reach a unanimous decision.

It’s a significant milestone for the Justice Department, which has now secured seditious conspiracy convictions against the leaders of two major extremist groups prosecutors say were intent on keeping Democratic President Joe Biden out of the White House at all costs. The charge carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

[…]

The verdict comes after a trial that took more than twice as long as originally expected, slowed by bickering, mistrial motions and revelations of government informants in the group. Securing the conviction of Tarrio, a high-profile leader who wasn’t at the riot itself, could embolden the Justice Department as a special counsel investigates Trump, including key aspects of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Special Counsel Jack Smith in recent weeks has sought the testimony of many people close to Trump. They include former Vice President Mike Pence, who testified before a grand jury last week, likely giving prosecutors a key first-person account about certain conversations and events in the weeks preceding the riot.

Tarrio was a top target of what has become the largest Justice Department investigation in American history. He led the neo-fascist group — known for street fights with left-wing activists — when Trump infamously told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” during his first debate with Biden.

Tarrio wasn’t in Washington on Jan. 6, because he had been arrested two days earlier in a separate case and ordered out of the capital city. But prosecutors said he organized and directed the attack by Proud Boys who stormed the Capitol that day.

In addition to Tarrio, a Miami resident, three other Proud Boys were convicted of seditious conspiracy: Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs and Zachary Rehl.

Tarrio, Nordean, Biggs and Rehl were also convicted of obstructing Congress’ certification of Biden’s electoral victory and obstructing law enforcement as well as two other conspiracy charges. The four were cleared of an assault charge stemming from Pezzola, who stole an officer’s riot shield.

[…]

The backbone of the government’s case was hundreds of messages exchanged by Proud Boys in the days leading up to Jan. 6 that show the far-right extremist group peddling Trump’s false claims of a stolen election and trading fears over what would happen when Biden took office.

The backbone of the government’s case was hundreds of messages exchanged by Proud Boys in the days leading up to Jan. 6 that show the far-right extremist group peddling Trump’s false claims of a stolen election and trading fears over what would happen when Biden took office.

“It was Donald Trump’s words. It was his motivation. It was his anger that caused what occurred on January 6th in your beautiful and amazing city,” attorney Nayib Hassan said in his final appeal to jurors. “It was not Enrique Tarrio. They want to use Enrique Tarrio as a scapegoat for Donald J. Trump and those in power.”

The Justice Department hadn’t tried a seditious conspiracy case in a decade before a jury convicted another extremist group leader, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, of the Civil War-era charge last year.

Over the course of two Oath Keepers trials, Rhodes and five other members were convicted of seditious conspiracy for what prosecutors said was a separate plot to forcibly halt the transfer of presidential power from Trump to Biden. Three defendants were acquitted of the sedition charge, but convicted of obstructing Congress’ certification of Biden’s electoral victory.

The Justice Department has yet to disclose how much prison time it will seek when the Oath Keepers are sentenced later this month.

NYT (“Four Proud Boys Convicted of Sedition in Key Jan. 6 Case“) adds:

The jury’s decision to acquit only Mr. Pezzola of sedition was notable: He was the sole defendant who was not a leader of the Proud Boys, but among the five men he was also the most violent during the Capitol attack.

[…]

The sedition trial sprawled over the course of more than three months and was characterized by frequent delays, frayed relations between the defense and prosecution and several decisions by the presiding judge, Timothy J. Kelly, that tested the boundaries of conspiracy law.

Judge Kelly’s rulings allowed prosecutors to introduce damning evidence about the violent behavior and aggressive language of members of the Proud Boys who had only limited connections to the five defendants. The rulings also permitted jurors to convict on conspiracy even if they found there was no plan to disrupt the certification of the election, but merely an unspoken agreement to do so.

From the outset, the trial provided a unique and disturbing glimpse into the Proud Boys’ culture, as a trove of internal group chats and recordings revealed a toxic stew of machismo, homophobia and misogyny often accompanied by sophomoric humor and rampant alcohol use. The jury heard members of the group engaging in casual antisemitism and, in some cases, promoting outright Nazi sympathy.

[…]

In a series of searches before the trial began, investigators collected more than a half million text messages from the Ministry of Self-Defense and other Proud Boys group chats. While some of the messages were overtly violent and hinted at action at the Capitol, none set forth an explicit plan to storm the building or to forcibly disrupt the election certification taking place inside.

Lacking a smoking gun, prosecutors used two cooperating witnesses, Jeremy Bertino and Matthew Greene, to make what amounted to an inferential case that the five defendants had worked together to violently subvert the democratic process.

Mr. Bertino, a Proud Boy from North Carolina who pleaded guilty to sedition in a deal with the government, told the jury that the Proud Boys’ culture of violence and increasing desperation after the election came together with cataclysmic results on Jan. 6. Even if there were no explicit orders to attack the Capitol that day, he said, members of the group believed there was an implicit agreement to band together and to take the lead in waging “all-out revolution” to stop Mr. Biden from entering the White House.

[…]

From the start of the trial, prosecutors faced another difficult hurdle.

The Proud Boys as a whole were some of the most violent actors in the huge mob that stormed the Capitol as scores of its members played decisive roles in breaching barricades and assaulting the police.

But violence by the defendants themselves — who were mostly leaders of the group — was relatively limited. Mr. Tarrio was not even in Washington on Jan. 6, having been kicked out of the city days earlier by a local judge presiding over a separate criminal matter.

To build a case against the five men on trial, prosecutors convinced Judge Kelly to let them introduce videos of other Proud Boys and Trump supporters in the crowd who had acted violently, even if they had only limited connections to the defendants. Prosecutors argued that Mr. Tarrio and the other defendants wielded the others rioters as “tools” of their conspiracy — a novel legal strategy.

The defense was outraged by this theory and argued — unsuccessfully — that the approach was “absurd” and armed the prosecution with “an expanded power.”

“The argument is that just because defendants associated with people who did bad acts, they did bad acts,” Nicholas Smith, Mr. Nordean’s lawyer, said in court. “The other term for that is guilt by association.”

Unlike the Oath Keepers, who were largely rendered defunct by the Justice Department’s Jan. 6 prosecution, the Proud Boys have by and large survived. While they have dismantled their national leadership, they remain, in words Mr. Bertino used from the stand, “foot soldiers for the right.” The group in recent years inserted themselves at the local level into conflicts over issues like coronavirus restrictions, the teaching of antiracism in schools and efforts to use threats and violence against drag shows.

Several members have also sought more traditional levers of power and run for public office. The most successful of these efforts took place in Miami, where a half-dozen current and former Proud Boys secured seats on the Miami-Dade Republican Executive Committee, seeking to influence local politics from the inside.

I have been making three, related arguments pretty consistently since the dust settled on the Capitol Riots.

First, it was multiple, overlapping things—everything from an attempt to steal an election to violent thugs using politics as an excuse for mayhem to Trump supporters whipped up into a mob by a speech to idiots joining in the aftermath to take pics for their social media—rather than one thing.

Second, that the justice system should treat these things differently. To my surprise, it by and large seems to be doing so. Those who were violent and/or participating in a conspiracy to overthrow the results of a democratic election are being punished severely while those who were simply in it for the luls are getting relatively light punishments.

Third, it was going to take a frustratingly long time for the Justice Department to build cases against and convict the worst of the worst. But, finally, more than two years after an event we saw unfold live and in color on our television sets, the leaders of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers have been brought to justice. We’ll see how sentencing goes but I suspect they will get long prison terms, commensurate with their crimes against the Republic.

That said, I must confess to not paying much attention to the unfolding of the trial against Torrio and company and am somewhat worried that Judge Kelly may have bent over too far in deference to the prosecution in letting in prejudicial evidence and testimony. I’m not an attorney and seditious conspiracy is such a rare charge that even most criminal law specialists therefore have little experience in the applicable rules of evidence. It may simply be that more leeway is appropriate in a conspiracy case. Still, admitting texts that served simply to demonstrate that the defendants are racist assholes strikes me as problematic.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Matt Bernius says:

    [I] am somewhat worried that Judge Kelly may have bent over too far in deference to the prosecution in letting in prejudicial evidence and testimony.

    James, I have something to tell you about the general functioning of the criminal legal system in the US. You might need to sit down as this will come as a shock…

    Agreed on all other points.

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  2. Stormy Dragon says:

    This of course again raises the question of why the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police is hosting parties for domestic terrorist organizations at the FOP headquarters, including Zach Rehl:

    Philadelphia FOP facing criticism after Proud Boys attend Pence rally

    “I am deeply disturbed by reports that members of the Proud Boys — designated a general hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — were at a party hosted by the leadership of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police following Mike Pence’s visit to Philadelphia,” said District Attorney Larry Krasner is a statement on Monday. “About ten members of the Proud Boys were observed mingling with several local police officers at the party, which was held at a members-only area of the Philadelphia FOP headquarters.”

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  3. Scott F. says:

    I, too, appreciate that the punishments are fitting the crimes. It strengthens Justices credibility that they are not taking a blanket approach.

    However, while I understand where you’re going and this isn’t on you, until such time as Trump is convicted of incitement, this simply isn’t true:

    The worst of the worst Capitol Riot players have been brought to justice.

    The Top CR Player remains the favorite to represent the GOP in the 2024 election. This needs to be continuously repeated.

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  4. Stormy Dragon says:

    That said, I must confess to not paying much attention to the unfolding of the trial against Torrio and company and am somewhat worried that Judge Kelly may have bent over too far in deference to the prosecution in letting in prejudicial evidence and testimony.

    So if you weren’t paying attention to the trial, and as you yourself note (“to your surprise”) the response so far has been proportional to the nature of the offenses, what exactly is your basis for this worry?

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  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    I imagine he’s worried that it may give John Roberts’ corrupt conservative clown car an excuse to overturn the convictions. Which, incidentally, is not related to whether the charges brought were appropriate.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    @Scott F.: Yes, a fair point. I think Trump is likely untouchable for his January 6 crimes, although maybe not for others related to the attempt to steal the election.

    @Stormy Dragon: I’m just going by the NYT account and think the defense attorney actually has a point: some of the evidence let in seems to have been purely prejudicial, unrelated to whether there was a conspiracy. The Nazi stuff in particular. Additionally, I’m skeptical of showing videos of people who weren’t on trial committing violence. But, again, I don’t have full context, just the NYT account of what happened.

    @Michael Reynolds: I don’t think Roberts and company have any interest in siding with the Proud Boys. I am worried that an ordinary appellate court might order a new trial.

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  7. MarkedMan says:

    I’m out of touch with many things, and one of them is why these goofy (but truly dangerous!) cos-players appeal to anyone. Every time I learn more about them, they come across as more and more childish, as non-adults living in a poorly imagined video game world of their own creation. Heck, just their rules on masturbation would be hysterical if it wasn’t wrapped up in their misogyny and violence.

    1
  8. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m pretty sure establishing the alleged conspirators shared a common goal is one of the elements of the crime for a conspiracy charge, and the “Nazi stuff” would seem to fall under that.

    1
  9. gVOR08 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Exactly. And James is correct to be concerned about appeals. However, I don’t think TFG can count on loyalty from “his” judges. Their sponsors and handlers are establishment GOPs. They’re happy to use MAGA to get GOPs elected, but Trump’s become a liability. And maybe, just maybe, they may be developing some concern over maintaining an air of legitimacy.

    1
  10. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: My impression was that the lawyers representing these idiots were jaw-droppingly bad. If that was the case (and this is just pure speculation on my part), it is quite possible that they opened themselves up for the the “prejudicial” evidence. If, for example, they allowed their clients to claim that they were good citizens, then that opens the door for all manner of contrary evidence.

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  11. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: That may well be. I haven’t seen much in the way of legal analysis of the trial, I was just concerned about the verbiage in the NYT report that I excerpted. It raised some red flags as to grounds for appeal.

    1
  12. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    Those who were violent and/or participating in a conspiracy to overthrow the results of a democratic election are being punished severely while those who were simply in it for the luls are getting relatively light punishments.

    This was clearly evident in the jury’s decision in this case alone, with Pezzola being found not guilty of conspiracy.
    But the jury had no problem nailing the ringleaders, including Tarrio who wasn’t even at the Capitol on that day.
    Make no mistake…there is a direct line from these guys through Roger Stone, Colludy Rudy, John Eastman and right into the Oval Office.
    I only hope Jack Smith and Merrick Garland have the courage to follow that line, for the sake of Democracy.

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  13. Jen says:

    These clowns all look like set extras in very low-budget Rambo knock-off movies. I’m glad the justice system is getting this done, albeit slowly.

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  14. Tony W says:

    @Jen: I think the tactical White Claw really completes the ensemble.

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  15. Kingdaddy says:

    Second, that the justice system should treat these things differently. To my surprise, it by and large seems to be doing so. Those who were violent and/or participating in a conspiracy to overthrow the results of a democratic election are being punished severely while those who were simply in it for the luls are getting relatively light punishments.

    While I agree with you that the law should modulate punishment, I’m a little uncomfortable using presumed motive as a strong variable in that equation in cases like these. It’s hard to know what a person’s true motive really is, hence the word “presumed” in the previous sentence. There can be evidence of what the motive might be (say, from communications among Proud Boy members), but making the conclusion from that motive is less solid than, say, asking how violent the insurrectionist was (see the videos), or whether the person played a leading role in inciting or directing violence (like Tarrio). If we took the motive as mitigating factor too far, you might argue that Eichmann deserved a lighter sentence than some of his fellow Nazi leaders because he was just a bland bureaucrat going along with a monstrous evil, not a zealous enthusiast for that evil.

    If people around you are smashing in windows, attacking the police, stopping a critical function of government, erecting a gallows for the vice president, threatening legislative leaders, stealing government property, defacing a public building, and calling for what amounts to a violent coup, then the fact that you just wanted “the luls” of being part of this event isn’t an exoneration, or even that strong of a mitigating factor. Otherwise, you might be taking mob psychology as a mental impairment to a dangerous level. At what point should it be obvious that you’re part of something deeply wrong, no matter how much your pulse might be racing?

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  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: I am worried that an ordinary appellate court might order a new trial.

    I hear you James and I too feel that is a possibility, but IANAL and so don’t spend much time worrying about such things.

  17. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner:

    I was just concerned about the verbiage

    Fair enough. As an aside, when I read your comment there I realized there is something both you and I catch grief for in this comment section: when others equate “I have concerns” with, “I am accepting Trumps/The Proud Boys/Clarence Thomas position and agree with it”.

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  18. Scott says:

    A side note:

    Veterans in Proud Boy Jan. 6 case found guilty of seditious conspiracy

    Four members of the neo-fascist Proud Boys, three of whom have military backgrounds, were convicted Thursday of a plot to attack the U.S. Capitol – a significant milestone in the Jan. 6, 2021 cases that again highlighted the participation of veterans and service members, and created a new wave of disinformation.

    The case is a reminder that a large segment of the Jan. 6 protestors were veterans and even active duty service members – a small but vocal slice of the military community that proved willing to resort to violence against elected officials and fellow officers of the law, primed by a steady stream of disinformation that cast the 2020 election as rigged or stolen, though even Republican election officials across the country denied that.

    1
  19. gVOR08 says:

    @Scott: And the ex FBI agent arrested a few days ago. And @ Stormy Dragon: mentioned Philly cops partying with Proud Boys. We have radicalized cops as well as radicalized service members.

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  20. James Joyner says:

    @Kingdaddy: I don’t think we disagree. At the low end, there were clearly some significant number who entered the building long after it became a free-for-all and were simply wandering around taking pics for their Instagram. They should be punished for that! But many were advocating using felony murder laws and the like to impose massive prison sentences.

    @MarkedMan: Yes, I think that’s fair. I think the Proud Boy and Oath Keeper leadership should get maximum sentences and worry that the judge gave them strong grounds for appeal.

    @Scott: I’m not surprised by that. The group was overwhelmingly male and rural/Southern. That’s the cohort from which recruitment is drawn. And the older folks were likely Vietnam draftees.

    3
  21. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08: Agreed and it’s worrisome. I’m not shocked, though, because, as I noted @Scott, we draw cops and soldiers from the Trump demographic.

    2
  22. Mikey says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    This of course again raises the question of why the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police is hosting parties for domestic terrorist organizations at the FOP headquarters

    RATM answered this question a while ago:

    Some of those that work forces
    Are the same that burn crosses

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  23. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    “stand back and stand by”…for up to 20 years….

    1
  24. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @gVOR08: Authoritarians just gotta assert their authority.

  25. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    I’ll bet you a dollar that if this case gets to the Supremes it’ll be 5/4 to overturn.

    The Republicans on the court lied under oath to Congress to get the job, indeed worked closely with Republican administrations to carefully craft the lies. And I don’t for a minute believe we’ve seen the end of their corruption. We need to stop pretending that this is a legitimate court. These Republican justices are corrupt partisan hacks and could not possibly care less about the Constitution, still less about the country.

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  26. mattbernius says:

    @James Joyner:

    But many were advocating using felony murder laws and the like to impose massive prison sentences.

    To grind my usual axe, this is a great example of how the impulse to punish the people we think deserve it unites both sides of the political aisle. The only real difference is who each side think deserves it. It’s one of the bigger challenges when it comes to sentencing and criminal legal system reform.

    Don’t even get me started on felony murder which is such a vile concept.

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  27. James Joyner says:

    @mattbernius: I can see where someone involved in a felonious conspiracy involving firearms or other lethal weapons (say, a bank robbery) would get penalized more heavily if one of his cohort murders someone. But it’s quite another thing to punish them as though they committed the murder.

    7
  28. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s also to avoid situations where, say, three guys rob a bank and one shoots a guard and then all three sat one of the other two shot the guard, and you can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt which of the three did it, so they all get away with it.

    1
  29. Michael Cain says:

    On the question of some of the lighter sentences, particularly early on, probably worth remembering that the prosecutors here are as overloaded as prosecutors everywhere. Exchanging a guilty plea for a lighter sentence and/or lesser charges seems to be as common as dirt.

  30. Ken_L says:

    It’s remarkable that these cases have been tried and verdicts issued, while to the best of our knowledge, the DOJ has not even opened a criminal investigation into Trump’s role in the seditious plot to overturn the election. The January 6 committee must be wondering why they bothered.

  31. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    @James Joyner:
    Or worse, when the cops shoot a bystander in this situation…and the robber is charged and convicted of the murder.

    1
  32. mattbernius says:

    @James Joyner:

    But it’s quite another thing to punish them as though they committed the murder.

    Completely, especially in a country where that punishment (depending on State) can include execution.

  33. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I don’t have much sympathy for that argument. It’s the state’s burden to prove who committed the crime. Creating a backdoor that takes away that responsibility essentially bypasses the Due Process Clause.