Lies about the election helped bring insurgents to Capitol Hill on January 6, and now some who face criminal charges for their actions during the riot are hoping their gullibility could save them, or at least generate sympathy. .
Lawyers for at least three defendants indicted in connection with the violent siege told The Associated Press they would blame campaign misinformation and conspiracy theories, largely pushed by then-President Donald Trump , for misleading their customers. Lawyers say those who spread this disinformation bear as much responsibility for the violence as those who participated in the actual violation of the Capitol.
“I sound like an idiot saying it now, but my faith was in him,” accused Anthony Antonio said of Trump. Antonio said he was not interested in politics until pandemic boredom drove him to conservative cable news and right-wing social media. “I think they did a great job convincing people. “
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After Joe Biden’s victory in last year’s presidential election, Trump and his allies have repeatedly claimed the race was stolen, though claims have been repeatedly refuted by officials on both sides, external experts and courts from several states and its own attorney general. In many cases, baseless claims about lost votes, election fraud and corrupt election officials have been amplified on social media, bolstering Trump’s campaign to undermine confidence in the election that began long before November.
The wave of disinformation continues to spread, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson wrote on Wednesday in a decision denying the release of a man accused of threatening to kill U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“The constant drumbeat that inspired the accused to take up arms has not gone away,” Berman wrote in his ruling ordering Cleveland Grover Meredith Jr. to remain in custody. “Six months later, the duck that the election was stolen is repeated daily in the main media outlets and in the corridors of power in the federal and state governments, not to mention the almost daily fulminations of the former President. “
The defendants represent only a fraction of the more than 400 people indicted in the unsuccessful attempt to disrupt Biden’s certification of victory. But their arguments underscore the important role that lies played in inspiring the riot, especially as many high-profile Republicans try to downplay the January 6 violence and millions more still believe in it. wrong that the election was stolen.
At least one of these defendants is considering making disinformation a key part of his defense.
Albert Watkins, the St. Louis attorney representing Jacob Chansley, the so-called QAnon Shaman, likened the process to brainwashing or falling into the clutches of a cult. The repeated exposure to lies and inflammatory rhetoric, Watkins said, ultimately overwhelmed his client’s ability to discern reality.
“He’s not crazy,” Watkins said. “People who fell in love with [cult leader] Jim Jones and went to Guyana, they had husbands and wives and lives. And then they drank the Kool-Aid.
Similar legal arguments failed to exonerate Lee Boyd Malvo, who at 17 joined John Allen Mohammed in a series of snipers 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.
Lawyers for newspaper heiress Patty Hearst have also argued, without success, that their client was brainwashed into participating in a bank robbery after being kidnapped by the radical Liberation Army group Symbionese.
“It’s not an argument that I saw winning,” said Christopher Slobogin, director of the criminal justice program at Vanderbilt Law School, professor of psychiatry and expert in mental skills.
Slobogin said that unless belief in a conspiracy theory is used as evidence of a broader, diagnosable mental illness – say, paranoia – it is unlikely to overcome the presumption of competence of the law.
“I don’t blame the defense lawyers for raising this issue,” he said. “You pull all the stops and make all the arguments you can make,” he said. “But just because you have the false belief that the elections have been stolen doesn’t mean you can storm Capitol Hill. “
From a mental health perspective, conspiracy theories can impact a person’s actions, said Ziv Cohen, professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College at Cornell University. Cohen, an expert in conspiracy theories and radicalization, often performs mental competency exams for defendants.
“Conspiracy theories can lead people to commit illegal behavior,” Cohen said. “This is one of the dangers. Conspiracy theories erode social capital. They erode trust in authority and institutions.
Lawyers for Bruno Joseph Cua, a 19-year-old accused of pushing a police officer out of the US Senate chamber, attributed his client’s extremist rhetoric before and after the riot to social media. Lawyer Jonathan Jeffress said Cua was “reproducing what he had heard and seen on social media. Mr. Cua did not come up with these ideas on his own; he fed them.
In an article published the day after the riot, Cua wrote: “The tree of freedom must often be watered with the blood of tyrants. And the tree is thirsty.
Cua’s attorney now calls this comment the bluster of an impressionable youngster and says Cua regrets his actions.
Antonio, 27, was working as a solar panel salesman in suburban Chicago when the pandemic ended 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.
Even though he had never been interested in politics before – or even voted in a presidential election – Antonio said he was starting to be consumed by conspiracy theories that the election was rigged.
Court records describe Antonio as aggressive and belligerent. According to FBI reports, he threw a water bottle at a Capitol Police officer who was dragged up the steps of the building, destroyed office furniture and was captured by police cameras shouting ” Do you want war? We have war. 1776 once again ”among the officers.
Antonio, who wore a crest for the far-right anti-government militia The Three Percenters, is charged with five counts, including violent entry and disorderly conduct on the Capitol grounds and obstructing the enforcement of laws. laws during civil unrest.
Joseph Hurley, Antonio’s lawyer, said he would not use his client’s belief in false allegations of voter fraud to try to exonerate him. Instead, Hurley will use them to assert that Antonio was an impressionable person who was exploited by Trump and his allies.
“You can get this disease,” Hurley said. Misinformation, he said, “is not a defense. It’s not. But he will be led to say: This is why he was here. The reason he was there was because he was an idiot and believed what he heard on Fox News.