Some accused in Capitol riot will argue they have been misled by election falsehoods

PROVIDENCE, RI – Falsehoods about the elections helped bring insurgents to the Capitol on Jan. 6, and now some prosecuted for their actions during the insurrection are hoping that their gullibility may save them, or at least inspire sympathy.

Lawyers for at least three defendants charged in connection with the violent siege tell The Associated Press that they will blame election misinformation and conspiracy theories, much of which was promoted by then-President Donald Trump, for misleading their clients. The lawyers say those who spread this misinformation bear as much responsibility for the violence as those involved in the actual violation of the Capitol.

“I sound like an idiot now saying it, but I believed in him,” said the defendant Anthony Antonio, speaking of Trump. Antonio said he wasn’t interested in politics until the boredom of the pandemic led him to conservative cable news and law. Wing Social Media: “I think you did a great job convincing people.”

After Joe Biden’s victory in last year’s presidential election, Trump and his allies repeatedly claimed the race was stolen, despite allegations repeatedly debunked by officials from both parties, outside experts and courts in several states, and Trump’s own attorney general. In many cases, unsubstantiated claims about polling stations, polling fraud, and corrupt election officials were reinforced on social media, building Trump’s campaign to undermine confidence in the elections, which began well before November.

The deluge of misinformation continues to spread, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson wrote on Wednesday in a ruling denying the release of a man accused of killing U.S. spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, to have threatened.

“The steady drumbeat that inspired the defendant to take up arms has not faded,” wrote Berman in her decision to order Cleveland Grover Meredith Jr. to remain in custody. “Six months later, the canard that the election was stolen is repeated daily in major news outlets and in the corridors of power in the state and federal government, not to mention the former president’s almost daily fulminations.”

The defendants represent only a fraction of the more than 400 people charged with the failed attempt to disrupt the confirmation of Biden’s victory. However, their arguments underscore the important role the falsehoods played in sparking the uprising, especially as many top Republicans are trying to minimize the violence on Jan. 6 and millions of others still mistakenly believe the election was stolen.

At least one of these accused plans to make misinformation an important part of his defense.

Albert Watkins, the St. Louis attorney who represents Jacob Chansley, the so-called QAnon shamans, likened the process to brainwashing or falling into the hands of a cult. Repeated exposure to falsehood and incendiary rhetoric, Watkins said, ultimately overwhelmed his client’s ability to see reality.

“He’s not crazy,” said Watkins. “The people who fell in love with (cult leader) Jim Jones and went to Guyana had husbands, wives and lives. And then they drank the Kool-Aid.”

Similar legal arguments failed to excuse Lee Boyd Malvo, who at the age of 17 joined John Allen Mohammed in a sniper rampage that killed 10 people in the Washington, DC area in 2002. His lawyers tried to argue that Malvo was not responsible for his actions because he had been deceived by the elder Mohammed.

Newspaper heiress Patty Hearst’s lawyers also unsuccessfully argued that her client had been brainwashed into a bank robbery after he was kidnapped by the radical Symbionese Liberation Army group.

“It’s not an argument that I’ve seen won,” said Christopher Slobogin, director of the Vanderbilt Law School’s Criminal Justice Program, professor of psychiatry and an expert on mental literacy.

Slobogin said that the law’s presumption of competence is unlikely to break unless belief in a conspiracy theory is used as evidence of a major, diagnosable mental illness – paranoia, for example.

“I do not blame the defense lawyers for bringing this up,” he said. “You pull out all the stops and make all the arguments you can make,” he said. “But just because you have a firm, false belief that the election was stolen doesn’t mean you can storm the Capitol.”

From a mental health perspective, conspiracy theories can influence a person’s actions, said Ziv Cohen, professor of psychiatry at Cornell University’s Weill Cornell Medical College. Cohen, an expert on conspiracy theories and radicalization, often conducts mental proficiency tests on defendants.

“Conspiracy theories can lead people to commit illegal behavior,” Cohen said. “That is one of the dangers. Conspiracy theories undermine social capital. They undermine trust in authority and institutions. “

The lawyers of Bruno Joseph Cua, a 19-year-old accused of shoving a police officer in front of the Senate Chamber, attributed his client’s extremist rhetoric to social media before and after the uprising. Attorney Jonathan Jeffress said Cua “thought about what he heard and saw on social media. Mr. Cua did not come up with these ideas alone; he was fed to them. “

In a parler posting the day after the uprising, Cua wrote: “The tree of freedom often has to be watered from the blood of tyrants. And the tree is thirsty. “

Cua’s attorney now characterizes such comments as the excitement of an impressive young person and said Cua regrets his actions.

Antonio, 27, was working as a solar panel seller in suburban Chicago when the pandemic stopped working. He and his roommates watched Fox News most of the day, and Antonio began posting and sharing right-wing content on TikTok.

Although he had never been interested in politics before – or even voted in a presidential election – Antonio said he was consumed by conspiracy theories that the election had been rigged.

Court records show Antonio to be aggressive and bellicose. According to FBI reports, he threw a water bottle at a Capitol police officer who was dragged down the steps of the building, destroyed office furniture, and was caught on police cameras, and yelled, “You want war? We are at war. 1776 again “with officers.

Antonio, who wore a patch for the far-right anti-government militia group The Three Percenters, is charged with five charges, including forced entry and disorderly conduct for the sake of the Capitol, and obstruction of law enforcement during a civil disorder.

Joseph Hurley, Antonio’s attorney, said he would not use his client’s belief in false claims of election fraud to exonerate him. Instead, Hurley will use them to argue that Antonio was a formidable person who was taken advantage of by Trump and his allies.

“You can catch this disease,” said Hurley. Misinformation, he said, “is not a defense. It is not. But it is said: That’s why he was here. The reason he was there is because he was an idiot and believed what he heard on Fox News. “

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