Prosecutors close their case that far-right group ‘weaponized’ the Capitol mob
Members of the Proud Boys were “thirsting for violence” and “organizing for action” ahead of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, a federal prosecutor said Monday, as closing arguments began in the seditious-conspiracy case against the far-right group.
“For these defendants, politics was no longer something for the debating floor or the voting booth. For them, politics meant actual, physical violence,” said federal prosecutor Conor Mulroe.
Mr. Mulroe’s address to the jury summarized the Justice Department’s case against former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and four other members of the far-right group—Joseph Biggs, Ethan Nordean, Dominic Pezzola and Zachary Rehl—who all stand accused of conspiring to prevent the peaceful transfer of power on Jan. 6, 2021. The jury will begin deliberations after closing arguments from the accused Proud Boys’ defense lawyers, which are expected to last at least through Tuesday.
In his closing argument, Mr. Mulroe presented jurors with what he called the “drumbeat” of antagonistic messages that Proud Boys members exchanged in the weeks following former President Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election. Mr. Mulroe said group members spoke in violent, revolutionary terms leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, certification of now-President Joe Biden’s victory, with references to 1776.
Mr. Tarrio wasn’t present at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, having been arrested two days earlier on charges related to the burning of a Black Lives Matter flag the previous month and ordered to remain outside Washington. Mr. Mulroe argued Monday that Mr. Tarrio didn’t have to be there to be engaged in conspiracy, knowing as he did that he could trust top Proud Boys members to “pursue the objective.”
The closing arguments unfolded on the heels of testimony from two of the defendants, Messrs. Rehl and Pezzola, whose decisions to take the stand made for a climactic end to the trial. Under a prosecutor’s questioning, Mr. Pezzola railed against the criminal proceeding, describing it as a “corrupt trial” involving “fake charges.”
Responding to that testimony Monday, Mr. Mulroe referred to the trial as a “proceeding every bit as solemn and important as the one these defendants sought to disrupt.”
For the Justice Department, the seditious-conspiracy trial of the Proud Boys represents a marquee prosecution among the more than 1,000 criminal cases stemming from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. In two previous trials, federal prosecutors won guilty verdicts against the founder of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, and other members of that far-right group on seditious-conspiracy charges tied to the Capitol assault.
In the more than three-month Proud Boys trial, federal prosecutors advanced a theory that the group effectively weaponized the crowd of Trump supporters that day, arguing that the group planned for violence and galvanized the mob to storm the Capitol to keep Mr. Trump in power.
Dominic Pezzola, center with police shield, was among the first in the pro-Trump mob to ender the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021. Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press
A former Marine, Mr. Pezzola wielded a stolen riot shield to break a window into the Capitol and was among the first in the pro-Trump mob to enter the building that day. In his testimony he sought to minimize the day’s violence, saying the mob wasn’t an “invading force” but rather “trespassing protesters.”
Still, Mr. Pezzola said he wanted to testify—a risky gambit that opened him to cross-examination—“to take responsibility for my actions on Jan. 6” and to insist that he acted alone, not as part of a conspiracy with the four other Proud Boys standing trial alongside him.
“I’m also taking the stand to explain how these men over here that I’m indicted with should not be roped into my actions, and to also explain how there was no conspiracy,” he said.
Mr. Pezzola’s testimony followed that of Mr. Rehl, who testified over a number of days that the far-right group had “no objective” on Jan. 6, 2021. “We were just going to march around the city, because that’s all we ever do,” Mr. Rehl said.
Mr. Rehl said he only entered the Capitol only after he came to believe that lawmakers and then-Vice President Mike Pence had left the building. He called the violence of Jan. 6, 2021, a “disgrace” and said, “I absolutely do not approve of any damage at the Capitol at all. It’s a historic building.”
Proud Boys members Enrique Tarrio, left, and Joe Biggs marching during a protest in Washington, D.C., in December 2020. Photo: JIM URQUHART/REUTERS
During the cross-examination, a federal prosecutor presented video footage that appeared to show Mr. Rehl using pepper spray against police officers defending the Capitol. Mr. Rehl testified that he couldn’t recall whether he used pepper spray against officers.
Mr. Rehl distanced himself on the stand from Mr. Pezzola, saying he had never met or spoken with him before Jan. 6, 2021. With Mr. Pezzola looking on from the defendants’ side of the courtroom, Mr. Rehl described him as a rogue actor among the Proud Boys during the Capitol attack.
“He went off on his own, I guess, and made us all look bad,” Mr. Rehl said.
In his closing remarks Monday, Mr. Mulroe said the Capitol attack made the country look bad. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a national disgrace,” he said.