WASHINGTON, D.C.—Do you know what happened on January 6, 2021? Do you know why it happened?
There is a trial underway in Court Room 24 of the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse in Washington, DC. The large building is on the border of a park named for Chief Justice John Marshall. Anyone who knows about the trial can attend.
You just need to go through a security screening and enter the marble-clad interior. You can take an elevator or a modern, wooden spiral staircase to Courtroom 24. You can watch for yourself as the federal government tells a jury how it believes five men alleged to be high-ranking leaders of the Proud Boy orchestrated a riot at the United States Capitol two years ago.
I was in the audience when opening statements for the trial began on Jan. 12.
The proceeding felt like two people with opposing interests explaining what is going on during the fourth season of an ensemble television show. Every character has a complicated background and, in this case, the defense and the prosecution fight to make their opposing descriptions of the main characters stick.
The main characters – defendants Enrique Tarrio, Zachary Rehl, Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, and Domonic Pezzola – are all members of the Proud Boys, which is either a men’s organization focused on promoting Western values or a “neofascist white nationalist organization,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Tarrio, a Cuban-American from Miami, was the group’s national chairman. Nordean and Rehl were both chapter presidents.
All the men are charged with one count of seditious conspiracy for acting to “oppose by force the authority” of the United States government, one count of conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, and one count of conspiracy to impede officials of the United States. They are also charged with obstructing an official proceeding and interfering with law enforcement during civil disorder. Some are charged with assault and destruction of property. Pezzola is facing one count of robbery.
Courtroom 24 is large with the jury on one side, the defendants facing them from the other, and several long tables crowded with lawyers for both sides in between. The Oath Keepers were reportedly tried in the courtroom next door, a mirror image of number 24.
A second courtroom was open for additional spectators and the media. Livestreaming and the use of electronic devices are prohibited inside Courtroom 24.
The wives, mothers and sisters of the five defendants sat together on a bench in the second row. Other people in the gallery, with four benches on either side, protected their seats and asked people to leave them empty so the women could sit together.
The other benches were filled by family members of people convicted of crimes stemming from Jan. 6. Nicole Reffitt, whose husband Guy Reffit was the first person to be tried for his involvement on Jan. 6, is there. Her son Jackson is the one who reported his father to the FBI. Guy was sentenced to 87 months in August 2022.
Mrs. Reffit told me all her children, including her son, are supportive of her efforts to be there for other family members of people charged in connection with Jan. 6. According to AP News, a total of 940 people have been charged in connection to that day.
U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich, who heard the case, said that Reffit and other people who acted as he did are the “antithesis of patriotism.”
“Not only are they not patriots, they are a direct threat to our democracy, and will be punished as such,” Friedrich said during sentencing. Freidrich was appointed by Trump in 2017.
Even though the day was scheduled to begin at 9 AM, the prosecutor did not stand to deliver his opening statement until almost 11:30 AM.
Judge Timothy J. Kelly ruled that the jury would be allowed to use notebooks during the course of the trial. It immediately became clear why Kelly permitted this unusual but not unheard-of accommodation.
During the prosecution’s opening statement – a roughly 90-minute presentation complete with videos with animations that outlined the defendants as they walk on the National Mall on Jan. 6 – the jury was told about a cast of supporting characters who complicate the plot.
There is a group of Proud Boys who are now cooperating with the government and who will come to Courtroom 24 to testify against the five defendants during the coming weeks.
One of them is Charles Donohoe, a North Carolina man who goes by the name Yut Yut Cowabunga, who was originally codefendant but was removed after reaching a plea deal with the government in April 2022. Donahoe appears to have been swapped for Pezzola, who was originally indicted separately in his own case before the Department of Justice added him to the seditious conspiracy case in 2022. During opening statements, the government stated Pezzola was part of the alleged leadership team formed by Tarrio ahead of the protest on Jan. 6. Pezzola’s attorney – hours later – pointed out Pezzola had only been a member of the Proud Boys for a month.
Jason McCullough, the lead prosecutor in the case, named the accused men in the order they were sitting, right to left, at the defendants’ table. When he names Pezzola, someone behind me whispered, “I did not recognize him.”
The government’s photos of the flooring contractor from upstate New York show a man with dark but greying long hair and an untamed beard. In court, Pezzola was clean-shaven with closely cropped hair.
McCullough cast the men as want-to-be tough guys with a mix of military backgrounds and chaotic energy. The prosecutor told the jury that “conspiracy is just an agreement” between people with a “common understanding.”
McCullough claimed the “path to seditious conspiracy” began on Dec. 12, 2020 after four Proud Boys were stabbed while in downtown DC. He said Tarrio immediately formed a subgroup called the Ministry of Self-Defense to “manipulate public perceptions” and to put “his men in the best light possible.” He says the Proud Boys became dedicated to the desire to prevent the transfer of presidential power.
“These men were calling for war if their preferred candidate was not elected,” said McCullough.
Tarrio’s defense attorney later said the Ministry of Self-Defense was formed to prevent any other violence and to ensure only men who would not instigate conflict were in DC after President Donald Trump announced his Dec. 19 “Stop the Steal” rally.
Over and over again, the prosecutor repeated the phrase “by any means necessary.” He stressed that the Proud Boys intended and planned to storm the Capitol and that they were not above violence.
At one point, the prosecution showed an aerial photo of the crowd gathered in front of the Capitol building on Jan. 6. The thousands of people form a mass, dotted with red hats and flags. I found myself thinking about the images of the National Mall during Trump’s 2017 inauguration and the news outlets that tried to prove the event was underattended. There is a weird irony to the shock and horror the truly massive crowd of Trump’s supporters inspired in the same publications.
During the breaks in between proceedings, Mrs. Reffit pointed out members of the audience to me — relatives of the accused and convicted, the sketch artist who sells drawings of the trials. She recognized one woman who protests the families of “J6ers” on the streets outside the courthouse, chanting at them while walking behind them.
A few people wore rubber bracelets with the phrase “Justice for Ashli is Justice For All.”
When court reconvened after lunch, attendance in the gallery had dropped by at least one-third, if not half.
“Where do you think all those FBI agents went?” a man sitting near me quipped at one point. I am not sure if it was a joke or a serious inquiry.
The day was a slow-motion volley between the prosecution and the defense. We rewatched videos, lengthened to include additional context omitted by the government. We heard every defense attorney denounce the attacks on law enforcement and entreat the jury to not let their political convictions cloud their objectivity. We listened as the prosecution painted a portrait of defendants as conniving and hot-headed leaders of followers who were ready and looking for a fight before attorneys for the defense recast them as protestors, intensely passionate about America but who are not organized enough to place a group order at McDonald’s.
The reality is that for every video the prosecution presented showing the tense and chaotic scene at the Capitol, the defense attorneys had an arsenal of mitigating factors and contextualizing information that degraded the narrative constructed by the prosecution.
The lawyers representing the defendants repeatedly drew attention to facts omitted by the government. Not every defendant entered the building — in fact, videos show some discouraging the crowd from entering. None of them planned what they would do when they gathered in Washington DC — in fact, text messages show they were still trying to figure out what time and where to meet up late into the night on Jan. 5. None of the men went to Washington DC armed with any weapons.
In fact, the only man who recorded a message suggesting they enter the Capitol is currently cooperating with the government as part of a plea agreement. The government did not present any evidence the defendants agreed with or supported the suggestion.
“You are going to see a lot of evidence that angers you … that may make you dislike the defendants,” said Nick Smith, an attorney for Nordean, during his opening statement. He acknowledged that it is human nature to look for one cause for the chaotic day.
“We want to blame someone for the sins of the entire community,” he said.
He was the first defense attorney of the day to point out that multiple government informants, who had been working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation well before January 6, were present and marched with the Proud Boys that day. His opening presentation included a screenshot of a text from one informant to his federal contact as the crowd was growing. The unnamed man wrote that the impending riot had not been planned or organized by the Proud Boys but was instead a result of “herd mentality.”
As Smith spoke, I felt like the prosecutor’s catchphrase of the morning — that the defendants planned to prevent the vote certification “by any means necessary” — was hanging in the room.
Tarrio’s lawyer, Nayib Hassan, delivered his opening statement while striding next to the podium in front of the jury box and gesticulating around the room.
“The evidence is going to show that the government has to blame someone for January 6,” said Hassan.
He told the jury that the government needs a scapegoat in order to explain its own failing on Jan. 6 and that they have decided his client is the best option. In fact, because of a different case being brought against him, Tarrio was not in DC at any point on Jan. 6.
“If the government takes down Enrique Tarrio, the government takes down the Proud Boys,” Hassan said. “Show business, that’s what he’s here for.”
“Believe it or not, this entire case is about a six-hour delay of Congress on January 6,” said Roger Roots, who is representing Pezzola, when he got his turn to present an opening statement.
Roots gave me the impression he moonlights as a college history professor.
The United States has had “many many contentious presidential elections,” Roots told the jury. His examples included the Florida recount in 2000 that decided the George W. Bush versus Al Gore election and the Election of 1876, which was not certified until March 2, 1877 after the Compromise of 1877 was reached.
“Despite what the government told you, [election certification] procedure allows for protests, hearings, and objections,” Roots continued. He showed the jury a copy of the agenda for Jan. 6, 2021 which had been approved by the Senate three days earlier. It included a two-hour delay specifically for protests and objections.
Roots’ paralegal sat in the row behind me, wearing a tank top with the word “Allegedly” bejeweled in red sparkles.
The government objected to the very first slide in attorney Carmen Hernandez’s opening statement presentation, which was set up before the jury was brought into the room, around 5 PM. The slide read “Zachary Rehl is innocent.”
“I mean he is presumed innocent… but…” said the prosecutor, seeming to struggle to articulate a specific complaint.
The slides, and what can be presented to the jury, are an established point of contention. Judge Kelly, noticeably tense from his seat in Courtroom 24, tried to reprimand Hernandez. The two went a figurative ten rounds over the First and Sixth Amendments for what was obviously not the first time.
At one point, Hernandez said the judge permitted the government to say the defendants “brought a fighting force” to DC during its opening statement.
“You think that is better than me saying I think [my client] is innocent and the evidence will prove it?” she said, inflections of exasperation in her voice.
Hernandez told the jury during her opening statement that this is the largest criminal investigation in the nation’s history and that the federal government has obtained more than 160,000 messages from people involved including Telegram missives, social media posts, video recordings and zoom calls.
Not one of them contain any discussion of a specific plan to storm the Capitol, to use force, or to disrupt the proceedings, Hernandez told the jury.
“What the government is asking you to do is to interpret what people meant,” she said. “I’m sure that if these people were people who you thought were protesting for a just cause, you would give them more leeway.”
I realized as I was leaving the courthouse around 6 PM that I was walking behind one of the women on the jury. She kept talking to herself as we went down the block.
I will never know if that is a personal habit or if she was simply overwhelmed while processing the thousands of details she had been asked to remember. I was not close enough to hear any specifics.
Because the proceedings are not being livestreamed, the majority of the details presented by each side will undoubtedly never be reported.
Were the events of January 6, 2021 a planned, pre-coordinated effort to prevent legislative proceedings by any means necessary or the results of a chaotic but legal protest that escalated beyond anyone’s expectations?
The jury has to reach a unanimous verdict in order to find the defendants guilty. Their decision seems destined to determine whose version of history will be passed on to the next generation.