Jury selection in the first of the Jan. 6-related criminal trials began on Feb. 28 in U.S. District Court in Washington, after a coalition of media organizations challenged Judge Dabney L. Friedrich’s ruling that media wouldn’t be allowed in the courtroom for the trial of Guy W. Reffitt.
Reffitt, 49, of Wylie, Texas, is charged with entering and remaining in a restricted building while armed with a dangerous weapon, civil disorder, obstruction of an official proceeding, obstruction of U.S. Capitol Police officers, and obstruction of justice for allegedly threatening to shoot his children if they turned him in to the FBI.
Reffitt is the first Jan. 6 defendant to go to trial, although many others have accepted plea deals with reduced charges. Reffitt has been held in federal detention since his arrest on Jan. 16, 2021. More than 750 people have faced charges since the FBI began a massive investigation just hours after the unrest at the Capitol.
Prosecutors allege Reffitt carried a semiautomatic Smith & Wesson pistol onto Capitol grounds during the breach of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Friedrich initially ruled that due to COVID-19 restrictions, including social distancing, there wouldn’t be sufficient room for media seating.
A coalition of 20 media organizations filed a motion on Feb. 27 challenging the restrictions. The next day, the judge ruled that a pool reporter would be allowed in the courtroom for opening statements and possibly for closing arguments, but not during the rest of the trial.
Media will be able to monitor the trial via live-stream video in an adjacent overflow room that accommodates about 50 people, Friedrich said.
Dial-in access to an audio feed from the courtroom won’t be allowed as it was during pretrial hearings. Friedrich said she didn’t want case witnesses to be able to listen and possibly shape their testimony to match that of other witnesses.
“The public interest in these proceedings could not be greater,” media coalition attorneys from Ballard Spahr LLP wrote in the motion for courtroom access. “The movants learned late on Friday, however, that the court plans to conduct this trial without a single member of the press or public in the courtroom.”
Despite livestream feeds in overflow courtrooms and the release of case exhibits as they are received into evidence, “the First Amendment and clear Supreme Court precedent require public access to the trial courtroom itself,” the motion said. “The public is entitled by law to read and hear first-hand accounts as jurors observe the questioning of witnesses, arguments of counsel, and the rulings of the Court during this historic trial.”
After ruling on the motion, Friedrich conducted general questioning of the first 47 juror candidates. She asked each about their knowledge of the Jan. 6 events at the Capitol, whether they knew Reffitt, the attorneys in the case, or the judge or her staff, and 25 other questions designed to gauge whether each can serve as a fair and impartial juror.
She also asked if any of them would be uncomfortable if the judge or case attorneys removed their masks if they had to speak for an extended time. Candidates who answered “yes” to any question were asked to write that down on a note card that was later collected by court staff.
The group then moved to another courtroom, where prosecutors Jeffrey Nestler and Risa Berkower, defense attorney William Welch III and Judge Friedrich were set to ask questions one on one.
Reffitt’s wife, Nicole, posted on Twitter, “We are doing this! Jury selection begins now! Let’s bring Guy home.”
Jury selection will likely continue until late March 1, followed by opening statements. The trial is expected to stretch into next week, Friedrich said.
Prosecutors plan to call 13 witnesses, including four current and former U.S. Capitol Police officials, three FBI agents, an FBI photographer, a Secret Service agent, the former counsel to the secretary of the U.S. Senate, Reffitt’s two children, and an informant from the Texas Three Percenters group who traveled with Reffitt to Washington from Texas.
Reffitt was also a member of the Three Percenters, which the FBI calls an extremist group. That witness, described only as “R.H.” in court filings, was given immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony.