Blame Trump? Jury hears that defense at Capitol riot trial

Apr 12, 2022, 9:19 PM | Updated: 9:57 pm
FILE - Violent insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump storm the Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021, in...

FILE - Violent insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump storm the Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. An Ohio man charged with stealing a coat rack from the U.S. Capitol doesn't deny that he joined the mob that stormed the building last year. But a lawyer for Capitol riot defendant Dustin Thompson vows to show that former President Donald Trump abused his power to authorize the attack on Jan. 6. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

(AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Mentions of Donald Trump have been rare at the first few trials for people charged with storming the U.S. Capitol, but that has changed: The latest Capitol riot defendant to go on trial is blaming his actions on the former president and his false claims about a stolen election.

Dustin Byron Thompson, an Ohio man charged with stealing a coat rack from the Capitol, doesn’t deny that he joined the mob on Jan. 6, 2021. But his lawyer vowed Tuesday to show that Trump abused his power to “authorize” the attack.

Describing Trump as a man without scruples or integrity, defense attorney Samuel Shamansky said the former president engaged in a “sinister” plot to encourage Thompson and other supporters to “do his dirty work.”

“It’s Donald Trump himself spewing the lies and using his position to authorize this assault,” Shamansky told jurors Tuesday during the trial’s opening statements.

Justice Department prosecutor Jennifer Rozzoni said Thompson knew he was breaking the law that day.

“He chose to be a part of the mayhem and chaos,” she said.

Thompson’s lawyer sought subpoenas to call Trump and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as witnesses at his trial this week. A judge rejected that request but ruled that jurors can hear recordings of speeches that Trump and Giuliani delivered at a rally before the riot.

Thompson’s jury trial is the third among hundreds of Capitol riot prosecutions. The first two ended with jurors convicting both defendants on all counts with which they were charged.

In a February court filing, Shamansky said he wanted to argue at trial that Thompson was acting at the direction of Trump and “his various conspirators.” The lawyer asked to subpoena others from Trump’s inner circle, including former White House strategist Steve Bannon, former White House senior adviser Stephen Miller and former Trump lawyers John Eastman and Sidney Powell.

Prosecutors said Thompson can’t show that Trump or Giuliani had the authority to “empower” him to break the law. They also noted that video of the rally speeches “perfectly captures” the tone, delivery and context of the statements to the extent they are “marginally relevant” to proof of Thompson’s intent on Jan. 6.

Thompson’s lawyer argued that Trump would testify that he and others ” orchestrated a carefully crafted plot to call into question the integrity of the 2020 presidential election.” Shamansky claimed that Giuliani incited rioters by encouraging them to engage in “trial by combat” and that Trump provoked the mob by saying that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

Shamansky said Thompson, who lost his job during the COVID-19 pandemic, became an avid consumer of the conspiracy theories and lies about a stolen election.

“This is the garbage that Dustin Thompson is listening to day after day after day,” Shamansky said. “He goes down this rabbit hole. He listens to this echo chamber. And he acts accordingly.”

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton ruled in March that any in-person testimony by Trump or Giuliani could confuse and mislead jurors.

More than 770 people have been charged with federal crimes arising from Jan. 6. Over 250 of them have pleaded guilty, mostly to misdemeanors. Thompson is the fifth person to be tried on riot-related charges.

On Monday, a jury convicted a former Virginia police officer, Thomas Robertson, of storming the Capitol with another off-duty officer to obstruct Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral victory. Last month, a jury convicted a Texas man, Guy Reffitt, of storming the Capitol with a holstered handgun.

A judge hearing testimony without a jury decided cases against two other Capitol riot defendants at separate bench trials. U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden acquitted one of them of all charges and partially acquitted the other.

Thompson has a co-defendant, Robert Lyon, who pleaded guilty to riot-related charges in March.

Thompson, then 36, and Lyon, then 27, drove from Columbus, Ohio, to Silver Spring, Maryland, stayed overnight at a hotel and then took an Uber ride into Washington, D.C., on the morning of Jan. 6. After then-President Donald Trump’s speech, Thompson and Lyon headed over to the Capitol.

Thompson was wearing a “Trump 2020” winter hat and a bulletproof vest when he entered the Capitol and went to the Senate Parliamentarian’s Office, where he stole two bottles of liquor and a coat rack worth up to $500, according to prosecutors.

Thompson and Lyon traded text messages during the riot.

“Some girl died already,” Lyon said in one text, an apparent reference to a law enforcement officer’s fatal shooting of a rioter, Ashli Babbitt

“Was it Pelosi?” Thompson replied.

“I’m taking our country back,” Thompson later texted Lyon.

Around 6 p.m. on Jan. 6, Thompson and Lyon were sitting on a sidewalk and waiting for an Uber driver to pick them up when Capitol police officers approached and warned them that they were in a restricted area. As they started to leave, Thompson picked up a coat rack that appeared to be from the Capitol, the FBI said. Thompson ran away when the officers told him to put down the rack, dropping it as he fled. Lyon stayed behind and identified himself and Thompson to police.

That night, Thompson received a text from his wife that said, “I will not post bail.”

The FBI said agents later searched Lyon’s cellphone and found a video that showed a ransacked office and Thompson yelling: “Wooooo! ‘Merica Hey! This is our house!” A surveillance video also captured Thompson leaving a Capitol office with a bottle of bourbon, the FBI said.

Thompson is charged with six counts: obstructing Congress’ joint session to certify the Electoral College vote, theft of government property, entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds, disorderly or disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds, disorderly or disruptive conduct in a Capitol building, and parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building.

Lyon pleaded guilty to theft of government property and disorderly conduct. Both counts are misdemeanors punishable by a maximum of 1 year imprisonment. Walton is scheduled to sentence Lyon on June 3.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Blame Trump? Jury hears that defense at Capitol riot trial