A prosecutor urged a jury in a trial’s opening statement Wednesday to convict a New York man who threatened to kill members of Congress in a video posted online, but a defense lawyer dismissed his rants as speech-protected hyperbole so absurd that they bordered on comedy.
The trial of Brendan Hunt, 37, put the Jan. 6 breach at the U.S. Capitol before a jury for the first time, though Hunt wasn’t there in Washington that day.
Hunt, an analyst for the New York court system, has pleaded not guilty to a threat-to-murder charge in Brooklyn federal court, where coronavirus precautions forced spectators into adjacent courtrooms to watch on video.
Prosecutors say he made online threats calling for the murder of lawmakers including Democratic U.S. Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer. Various posts indicated Hunt believed former President Trump's widely disputed claims of a "rigged election" and wanted to exact revenge on Democrats involved in the process.
Hunt is also accused of calling for violence at President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration on Wednesday in that video.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Francisco Navarro said Hunt’s monthlong online campaign to urge violence against members of Congress culminated on Jan. 8 in an 88-second video titled: “Kill your senators. Slaughter them all.”
The prosecutor said Hunt was trying to inspire violence against members of Congress on Inauguration Day as a follow up to the Jan. 6 attack, when hundreds of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters broke into the Capitol and interrupted the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory.
According to court papers, Hunt had previously written in December: “We want to hold a public execution of pelosi aoc schumer etc. … Start up the firing squads, mow down these commies, and lets take america back!”
"If anybody has a gun, give me it. I'll go there myself and shoot them and kill them," Hunt allegedly said in one post. A phone registered to Hunt was located at or near his residence in Queens at the time that video was uploaded, documents show.
“This case is not about political parties, election results,” Navarro said. He added that it was about “the defendant threatening to kill people.”
Defense attorney Jan Rostal told jurors they could label her client “an idiot or clown” but the First Amendment blocked his conviction on a criminal charge which could carry a decade in prison.
“He did something he shouldn’t have,” she said as Hunt, in a suitcoat and tie, observed passively.
Rostal said Hunt was a registered Democrat who voted for former President Barack Obama but later was disappointed by his Middle East policies.
She said Hunt, who finished college with a theater degree and aspired to be an actor, filmmaker, comedian and journalist, became politically active online to support Trump’s efforts to change November’s election results.
She urged jurors to watch the 88-second video closely and observe that Hunt “cracks up” laughing at the end of the clip, which Hunt took down from the internet after he was criticized online as “too stupid” and urged to “stop being an idiot” and delete the video.
Rostal said evidence wouldn’t show anyone in Congress felt threatened by Hunt’s online actions and, while no members of Congress would appear during the weeklong trial, if they did, “he’d apologize to them for what was said.”
She said his words when federal agents awakened him at home in an early morning raid showed his surprise and lack of criminal intent.
“Guys, I wasn’t at the Capitol,” she quoted him as telling federal agents as they took him into custody on Jan. 19 near a marijuana bong and beer bottles in a Queens apartment. The alleged threats were made in a series of posts on various social media websites under the alias "X-Ray Ultra" between Dec. 6 and Jan. 12.