WASHINGTON — Former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and three other members of the far-right extremist group were convicted Thursday of a plot to attack the US Capitol in a desperate bid to keep Donald Trump in power after the Republican lost the 2020 presidential election.
A jury in Washington, DC, found Tarrio, 39, the former “national chairman” of the neofascist organization, and three of his lieutenants — Joseph Biggs, 39, Ethan Nordean, 32, and Zachary Rehl, 37 — guilty of seditious conspiracy after hearing from dozens of witnesses over more than three months in one of the most serious cases brought in the stunning attack that unfolded on January 6, 2021, as the world watched on live TV.
Jurors cleared a fifth defendant — Dominic Pezzola — of the sedition charge, though he was convicted of other serious felonies. The judge excused the jury without delivering a verdict on some counts — including another conspiracy charge for Pezzola — after jurors failed to reach a unanimous decision.
It’s a significant milestone for the Justice Department, which has now secured seditious conspiracy convictions against the leaders of two major extremist groups prosecutors say were intent on keeping Democratic President Joe Biden out of the White House at all costs. The charge carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
“After January 6, I promised that the Justice Department would do everything in its power to hold accountable those responsible for the heinous attack that sought to disrupt a cornerstone of our democracy — the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected government,” Attorney General Merrick Garland told reporters.
“Today’s verdict makes clear that the Justice Department will do everything in its power to defend the American people and American democracy,” Garland said.
Tarrio wasn’t in Washington on January 6, 2021 because he had been arrested two days earlier in a separate case and ordered out of the capital city. But prosecutors said he organized and directed the attack by Proud Boys who stormed the Capitol that day in an attempt to stop the certification by Congress of Biden’s election victory over Trump.
All five Proud Boy defendants were also convicted of several lesser charges, including obstruction of the proceedings of Congress, impeding law enforcement, and destruction of government property.
The 45-year-old Pezzola was also found guilty of robbery of US property. In widely viewed video footage from January 6, Pezzola can be seen using a stolen police riot shield to break a window at the Capitol.
Tarrio, behind bars since his March 2022 arrest, didn’t appear to show any emotion as the verdict was read. He hugged one of his lawyers and shook the hand of the other before leaving the courtroom. A few of the people sitting among the defendants’ relatives wiped away tears as the verdict was read.
The success of federal prosecutors in obtaining convictions for sedition among the January 6 rioters could raise the stakes for Trump and his aides in the probe by a special counsel into whether they plotted or fomented the Capitol attack.
Special Counsel Jack Smith in recent weeks has sought the testimony of many people close to Trump. They include former Vice President Mike Pence, who testified before a grand jury last week, likely giving prosecutors a key first-person account about certain conversations and events in the weeks preceding the riot.
Tarrio was a top target of what has become the largest Justice Department investigation in American history. He led the neo-fascist group — known for street fights with left-wing activists — when Trump infamously told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” during his first debate with Biden.
More than 1,000 people have been arrested in connection with the storming of Congress by Trump supporters — and more than 600 convicted — but only about a dozen have faced the rarely used charge of sedition.
The Proud Boys were “lined up behind Donald Trump and willing to commit violence on his behalf,” prosecutor Conor Mulroe said in his closing argument.
The backbone of the government’s case was hundreds of messages exchanged by Proud Boys in the days leading up to Jan. 6 that show the far-right extremist group peddling Trump’s false claims of a stolen election and trading fears over what would happen when Biden took office.
As Proud Boys swarmed the Capitol, Tarrio cheered them on from afar, writing on social media: “Do what must be done.” In a Proud Boys encrypted group chat later that day someone asked what they should do next. Tarrio responded: “Do it again.”
“Make no mistake,” Tarrio wrote in another message. “We did this.”
Defense lawyers denied there was any plot to attack the Capitol or stop Congress’ certification of Biden’s win. A lawyer for Tarrio sought to push the blame onto Trump, arguing the former president incited the pro-Trump mob’s attack when he urged the crowd near the White House to “fight like hell.”
“It was Donald Trump’s words. It was his motivation. It was his anger that caused what occurred on January 6th in your beautiful and amazing city,” attorney Nayib Hassan said in his final appeal to jurors. “It was not Enrique Tarrio. They want to use Enrique Tarrio as a scapegoat for Donald J. Trump and those in power.”
Special counsel probe
Two leaders of another far-right group, the Oath Keepers, were convicted of seditious conspiracy last year, including founder, Stewart Rhodes, and several other members pleaded guilty without going to trial.
According to Tarrio’s indictment, he met with Rhodes on January 5 in an underground parking garage in Washington and was in contact with members of the Proud Boys who breached the Capitol.
In January, four other members of the Oath Keepers were found guilty of seditious conspiracy, fortifying the government’s argument that the January 6 attack was not simply a spontaneous action, but involved significant planning and coordination.
The Justice Department has yet to disclose how much prison time it will seek when the Oath Keepers are sentenced later this month.
The assault on Congress left at least five people dead and 140 police officers injured and followed a fiery speech by Trump to thousands of his supporters near the White House.
Trump was impeached for a historic second time by the House of Representatives after the Capitol riot — he was charged with inciting an insurrection — but was acquitted by the Senate.
A House committee that investigated the Capitol riot recommended that the Justice Department pursue criminal charges against Trump.
Three weeks before the violence, Trump urged his supporters to descend on Washington on January 6, tweeting: “Be there, will be wild.”
Trump is also facing possible indictment in Georgia for allegedly pressuring local officials to change the election results in the southern state.
The special counsel is also looking into a cache of classified documents that the FBI seized in a raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence last year.