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NY trial over US Capitol riot tests freedom of expression limits

By PhillyNews.FYI , in News , at April 28, 2021 Tags: ,


A New York jury is deciding whether Americans, at a time of extreme political tensions, can call for the killing of US lawmakers under sacrosanct freedom of expression laws following a week-long trial that revisited the January 6 riot at the Capitol.

The federal trial, the first related to the storming of Congress by supporters of ex-president Donald Trump, is viewed as a test case for the limits of freedom of expression protected by the first amendment of the US constitution.

Brendan Hunt, a 37-year-old court employee who uses the alias “X-Ray Ultra,” is accused of threatening to murder elected officials including Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, and progressive congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

He is charged with “intent to impede, intimidate and interfere” with the performing of their official duties, specifically Congress’s vote on January 6 that confirmed President Joe Biden had won November’s election over Trump.

Hunt is also charged with “intent to retaliate” over the electoral college vote count, which affirmed that Trump would have to leave the White House after just one term.

The jury is considering several messages that Hunt posted on social networks. The first dates back to December 6 when, on Facebook, he called on Trump “to hold a public execution of pelosi aoc schumer etc.”

“And if you dont do it, the citizenry will,” he wrote.

“Start up the firing squads, mow down these commies, and lets take america back!”

On January 8, two days after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol to try to stop the count, Hunt posted a 88-second video on BitChute, a platform beloved by the far right, titled “KILL YOUR SENATORS.”

“We need to go back to the U.S. Capitol when all of the Senators and a lot of the Representatives are back there, and this time we have to show up with our guns,” he said, addressing the camera.

Hunt, using a number of expletives, added that he would “go there myself and shoot them and kill them.”

The FBI has arrested more than 400 people in relation to the January 6 violence, which Biden called “an insurrection.”

Among the thousands of calls they received was one alerting them to Hunt’s video.

Hunt, the son of a retired judge, calls himself an actor, musician and journalist. He was arrested at his home in the New York borough of Queens on January 19, the day before Biden’s inauguration.

Officers did not find any weapons, or evidence of involvement or communication with any extremist groups.

Prosecutors do not claim that Hunt, who read “Mein Kampf” and called on Trump supporters to seize power “like Hitler,” was in Washington on January 6 or even that he intended to go.

So were Hunt’s threats serious and did he really intend to attack elected officials as prosecutors argued, given that he had admitted alcohol problems and his video channel only had 99 subscribers?

“The first amendment does not protect” against such threats, prosecutor David Kessler said in closing arguments Wednesday.

“The government does not need to prove that the defendant attempted to kill. Making the threat is the crime,” even if it is made on social networks and not addressed directly to the people targeted, he added.

During the trial, prosecutors replayed a video of the attack on the Capitol and called a Capitol police officer who was made aware of Hunt’s threats, to sensitize jurors to the danger posed to lawmakers.

But Hunt’s court-appointed lawyer Leticia Olivera said the messages were just “a nonsense rant” that is constitutionally protected free speech.

“As nonsensical and offensive as it may be, he has the right to say these things,” she told the trial, adding that “no one” took the posts seriously and Hunt himself removed his video from BitChute the next day.

“I dont know why the FBI got Brendan so wrong. They saw a highly dangerous person when they didn’t need to,” she told the jury and judge Pamela Chen.

Jurors began deliberating their verdict around noon on Wednesday.

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