Four Proud Boys Convicted of Sedition in Key Jan. 6 Case
Four members of the Proud Boys, including their former leader Enrique Tarrio, were convicted on Thursday of seditious conspiracy for plotting to keep President Donald J. Trump in power after his election defeat by leading a violent mob in attacking the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The jurors in the case failed to reach a decision on the sedition charge for one of the defendants, Dominic Pezzola, although he was convicted of other serious felonies.
The verdicts, coming after seven days of deliberations in Federal District Court in Washington, were a major blow against one of the country’s most notorious far-right groups and another milestone in the Justice Department’s vast investigation of the Capitol attack.
The trial was the last of three sedition cases that federal prosecutors brought against key figures in the Capitol attack.
The sedition charge, which is rarely used and harks back to the Union’s efforts to protect the federal government against secessionist rebels during the Civil War, was also used in two separate trials against nine members of another far-right group, the Oath Keepers militia. Six of those defendants — including Stewart Rhodes, the organization’s founder and leader — were convicted of sedition; each of the others was found guilty of different serious felonies.
As the verdicts were read in the fourth-floor courtroom, Mr. Tarrio, Mr. Pezzola and the other defendants — Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs and Zachary Rehl — remained steely. With the exception of Mr. Pezzola, the men were also found guilty of conspiring to obstruct the certification of the election, which took place at the Capitol on Jan. 6. All five defendants were convicted of a third conspiracy count as well, which accused them of interfering with the duties of members of Congress that day.
On the conspiracy counts alone — in addition to guilty verdicts on other felony charges — the men could face a maximum of nearly 50 years in prison.
The Proud Boys — who had been fighting on the streets since 2017 for a range of far-right causes — became a central focus of the F.B.I.’s investigation into Jan. 6 within days of the attack. The defendants were taken into custody in a series of arrests beginning in January 2021. More than 20 other members of the group from chapters ranging from New York to Hawaii were ultimately charged in separate cases in connection with the Capitol attack.
The sedition trial sprawled over the course of more than three months and was characterized by frequent delays, frayed relations between the defense and prosecution and several decisions by the presiding judge, Timothy J. Kelly, that tested the boundaries of conspiracy law.
Judge Kelly’s rulings allowed prosecutors to introduce damning evidence about the violent behavior and aggressive language of members of the Proud Boys who had only limited connections to the five defendants. The rulings also permitted jurors to convict on conspiracy even if they found there was no plan to disrupt the certification of the election, but merely an unspoken agreement to do so.
From the outset, the trial provided a unique and disturbing glimpse into the Proud Boys’ culture, as a trove of internal group chats and recordings revealed a toxic stew of machismo, homophobia and misogyny often accompanied by sophomoric humor and rampant alcohol use. The jury heard members of the group engaging in casual antisemitism and, in some cases, promoting outright Nazi sympathy.
Mr. Trump loomed large over the proceeding. In closing arguments, the prosecution placed the former president — a figure the Proud Boys revered since his first days in the White House — at the heart of their story.
They told the jury that the defendants and others in the group refused to accept Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory and that, acting as “Donald Trump’s army,” they organized and ultimately fought “to keep their preferred leader in power no matter what the law or the courts had to say about it.”
A prime example of the Proud Boys’ ties to Mr. Trump came in December 2020, when he posted a message on Twitter calling for a “wild” protest to be held in Washington on Jan. 6. Hearing the post as a call to action, Mr. Tarrio and his lieutenants organized a group of so-called “real men” — referred to as the Ministry of Self-Defense — to be on the ground in Washington that day.
In private online chats, Mr. Tarrio said the group was meant to “standardize event organizing.” But he also added a cryptic message: “ — whispers — Seventeen seventy six.” Prosecutors said that was his subtle way of suggesting that the Ministry of Self-Defense was bent on revolution, and they called the group “a violent gang that came together to use force against its enemies.”
In a series of searches before the trial began, investigators collected more than a half million text messages from the Ministry of Self-Defense and other Proud Boys group chats. While some of the messages were overtly violent and hinted at action at the Capitol, none set forth an explicit plan to storm the building or to forcibly disrupt the election certification taking place inside.
Lacking a smoking gun, prosecutors used two cooperating witness, Jeremy Bertino and Matthew Greene, to make what amounted to an inferential case that the five defendants had worked together to violently subvert the democratic process.
Mr. Bertino, a Proud Boy from North Carolina who pleaded guilty to sedition in a deal with the government, told the jury that the Proud Boys’ culture of violence and increasing desperation after the election came together with cataclysmic results on Jan. 6. Even if there were no explicit orders to attack the Capitol that day, he said, members of the group believed there was an implicit agreement to band together and to take the lead in waging “all-out revolution” to stop Mr. Biden from entering the White House.
“I expected them to save the country by any means necessary, up to and including violence,” Mr. Bertino said.
Mr. Greene, a former Proud Boy from New York, testified that he was surprised when the group’s leaders — including Mr. Nordean, Mr. Biggs and Mr. Rehl — marched about 200 Proud Boys away from Mr. Trump’s speech near the Ellipse on Jan. 6 and toward the Capitol.
But when rioters burst through barricades outside the building minutes after the Proud Boys arrived, Mr. Greene said he realized that this may have been the plan all along.
“I was putting two and two together,” he recalled, “and saying, ‘This is it.’”
From the start of the trial, prosecutors faced another difficult hurdle.
The Proud Boys as a whole were some of the most violent actors in the huge mob that stormed the Capitol as scores of its members played decisive roles in breaching barricades and assaulting the police.
But violence by the defendants themselves — who were mostly leaders of the group — was relatively limited. Mr. Tarrio was not even in Washington on Jan. 6, having been kicked out of the city days earlier by a local judge presiding over a separate criminal matter.
To build a case against the five men on trial, prosecutors convinced Judge Kelly to let them introduce videos of other Proud Boys and Trump supporters in the crowd who had acted violently, even if they had only limited connections to the defendants. Prosecutors argued that Mr. Tarrio and the other defendants wielded the others rioters as “tools” of their conspiracy — a novel legal strategy.
The defense was outraged by this theory and argued — unsuccessfully — that the approach was “absurd” and armed the prosecution with “an expanded power.”
“The argument is that just because defendants associated with people who did bad acts, they did bad acts,” Nicholas Smith, Mr. Nordean’s lawyer, said in court. “The other term for that is guilt by association.”
Unlike the Oath Keepers, who were largely rendered defunct by the Justice Department’s Jan. 6 prosecution, the Proud Boys have by and large survived. While they have dismantled their national leadership, they remain, in words Mr. Bertino used from the stand, “foot soldiers for the right.” The group in recent years inserted themselves at the local level into conflicts over issues like coronavirus restrictions, the teaching of antiracism in schools and efforts to use threats and violence against drag shows.
Several members have also sought more traditional levers of power and run for public office. The most successful of these efforts took place in Miami, where a half-dozen current and former Proud Boys secured seats on the Miami-Dade Republican Executive Committee, seeking to influence local politics from the inside.