A Washington, DC, jury has convicted four members of the far-right Proud Boys group of seditious conspiracy and other crimes for actions connected to the January 6, 2021, attack on Congress. The verdicts came after a three-month federal trial and a week of deliberation.
The jury found Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio guilty of seditious conspiracy even though Tarrio did not personally take part in the January 6 riot. Tarrio had been arrested on Jan. 4 for vandalism during a previous pro-Trump rally and had been ordered to leave DC. Still, jurors found that he joined in a conspiracy to use violence to help Donald Trump retain power. Also convicted were: Ethan Nordean, the top Proud Boy on the ground that day; Joseph Biggs; and Zachary Rehl. The jurors also convicted all those four men of conspiracy to obstruct Congress.
The jury acquitted Dominic Pezzola, a lower-ranking member of the organization, of seditious conspiracy and deadlocked on conspiracy to obstruct Congress charges against Pezzola. US District Court Judge Timothy Kelly—a Trump appointee—on Thursday afternoon declared a mistrial on that and other lesser counts on the jurors deadlocked on. The jurors were likely unsure if Pezzola was involved enough in planning to be guilty of conspiracy. Jurors did, however, convict Pezzola of obstructing an official proceeding and other charges related to the riot. On January 6, Pezzola used a stolen police riot shield to smash out window panes on the western side of the Capitol, allowing the first breach of the Capitol Building itself.
With the convictions, 14 members or affiliates of far-right groups that played leading roles in the January 6 attack have been convicted of the symbolically important charge of seditious conspiracy. Six members of the Oath Keepers militia group were previously found guilty of sedition, while four other men have pleaded guilty to that charge. That is a small fraction of the more than 1,000 Americans who have faced criminal charges for their roles in the January 6 attack, but it is an affirmation that the attack included a violent attempt to overthrow the US government—a reality that Trump and many of his supporters have disputed.
The seditious conspiracy convictions against four of the Proud Boys came despite a lack of evidence that group members had an explicit plan to storm the Capitol on January 6. Defense lawyers highlighted that lack of a clear plan, but federal prosecutors secured the guilty verdicts, it seems, due to an important legal distinction that is not widely understood. The government, according to instructions that Kelly gave the jury, did not need to prove that the Proud Boys had a plan to attack Congress. To show a conspiracy, prosecutors only needed to establish that the defendants had “an agreement—even an unspoken and implicit one—to achieve an unlawful objective,” as Roger Parloff, who covered the trial for Lawfare, recently noted. In other words, proving seditious conspiracy simply required showing the group had a shared goal of stopping Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump and was willing to use violence if necessary.
Prosecutors made that case by highlighting messages and social media posts in which Proud Boys vowed to help Trump retain power. “It’s time for fucking war if they steal this shit,” Biggs wrote on the far-right social media site Parler on November 5, 2020, as votes were still being counted in key swing states. And former Proud Boys who had agreed to cooperate with the feds testified during the trial that they saw the attack on the Capitol as furthering the group’s goals. “In my state of mind at that point, believing we were on verge of civil war and this could be the opening, I wanted to be close,” Proud Boy Matthew Greene explained in January testimony.
“I thought it was historical,” Jeremy Bertino, a Proud Boy leader who pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy, testified in February. “I thought it was a revolution starting.” Bertino wasn’t present on January 6, because he was recovering from a stab wound he received during a fight following a Trump rally in Washington on Dec. 12, 2020. But he testified that he understood the group had a shared goal: “Stop Joe Biden from being certified as the President of the United States.”
Tarrio’s messages and social media posts suggest he advocated this objective. On January 1, 2021, Tarrio wrote on Parler: “Let’s bring this new year with one word in mind… Revolt.” On January 6, as rioters stormed Congress, Tarrio wrote a series of messages that included: “1776” and “Do what must be done.” At 2:40 pm that day, Tarrio messaged a group of top Proud Boys: “Make no mistake… We did this.”
Like lawyers for many January 6 defendants, attorneys for Tarrio and other Proud Boys argued that Trump was ultimately to blame for the attack on Congress. They insisted that their clients were low-level backers who were being unfairly prosecuted while the former president and his aides avoid consequences.
“It was Donald Trump’s words, it was his motivation, it was his anger that caused what occurred on Jan. 6,” Tarrio attorney Nayib Hassan said in his closing remarks. “They want to use Enrique Tarrio as a scapegoat for Donald Trump and those in power.”
This argument did not save Tarrio and his colleagues from conviction, but the suggestion that Trump is evading responsibility for January 6 resonates with many Americans impatient for the Justice Department or state-level prosecutors to potentially bring charges against Trump and his associates for their efforts to overturn the election.
DOJ Special counsel Jack Smith recently interviewed former Vice President Mike Pence over several hours. The questions presumably focused on Trump’s effort to secure Pence’s help stopping Congress from certifying their defeat. Smith is also reportedly looking into whether Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, including those made in fundraising appeals, broke the law. But it remains unclear if or when Smith might indict Trump for crimes related to his effort to subvert the election. In Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has said she plans to announce this summer whether she will charge Trump or his allies in connection with their attempts to overturn his defeat in the state.
Meanwhile, Trump remains the GOP frontrunner for 2024. He is set to appear at a town hall event in New Hampshire that CNN plans to air on May 10 and is likely to repeat his false claims that the 2020 contest was stolen from him.
Update, May 4: This article has been updated to include the jury’s subsequent acquittal of Dominic Pezzola on the seditious conspiracy charge, as well as the jury’s failure to reach a unanimous verdict on some additional charges.