An Ohio man who claimed he was only “following presidential orders” from Donald Trump when he stormed the U.S. Capitol was convicted Thursday by a jury that took less than three hours to reject his novel defence for obstructing Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s presidential victory.
The federal jury also found Dustin Byron Thompson, 38, guilty of all five of the other charges in his indictment, including stealing a coat rack from an office inside the Capitol during the riot on Jan. 6, 2021. The maximum sentence for the obstruction count, the lone felony, would be 20 years in prison.
Jurors didn’t buy Thompson’s defence, in which he blamed Trump and members of the former president’s inner circle for the insurrection and for his own actions.
One juror who spoke to reporters only on condition of anonymity said, “Donald Trump wasn’t on trial in this case.”
The juror, a 40-year-old man, said as he left the courthouse, “Everyone agrees that Donald Trump is culpable as an overall narrative. Lots of people were there and then went home. Dustin Thompson did not.”
Testimony ‘totally disingenuous’
Thompson himself, testifying on Wednesday, admitted he joined the mob’s attack and stole the coat rack and a bottle of bourbon. He said he regretted his “disgraceful” behaviour.
“I can’t believe the things that I did,” he said. “Mob mentality and group think is very real and very dangerous.”
Still, he said he believed Trump’s false claim that the election was stolen and was trying to stand up for him.
“If the president is giving you almost an order to do something, I felt obligated to do that,” he said.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, who is scheduled to sentence Thompson on July 20, described the defendant’s testimony as “totally disingenuous” and his conduct on Jan. 6 as “reprehensible.” The judge also cast blame in Trump’s direction after the verdict was announced.
“I think our democracy is in trouble,” he said, adding that “charlatans” like Trump don’t care about democracy, only about power.
“And as a result of that, it’s tearing our country apart,” the judge said.
Prosecutors did not ask for Thompson to be detained immediately, but Walton ordered him held and he was led away handcuffed. The judge said he didn’t believe Thompson’s story, and felt he was a flight risk and a danger to the public.
Thompson’s jury trial was the third among hundreds of Capitol riot cases prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department. In the first two cases, jurors convicted both defendants of all charges.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Dreher said that Thompson, a college-educated exterminator who lost his job during the COVID-19 pandemic, knew he was breaking the law when he joined the mob that attacked the Capitol and, in his case, looted the Senate parliamentarian’s office.
The prosecutor told jurors that Thompson’s lawyer “wants you to think you have to choose between President Trump and his client.”
“You don’t have to choose because this is not President Trump’s trial. This is the trial for Dustin Thompson because of what he did at the Capitol on the afternoon on Jan. 6,” Dreher said.
Thompson’s lawyer, Samuel Shamansky, said his client hasn’t avoided taking responsibility for his conduct that day.
“This shameful chapter in our history is all on TV,” Shamansky told jurors.
But he said Thompson, unemployed and consumed by a steady diet of conspiracy theories, was vulnerable to Trump’s lies about a stolen election. He described Thompson as a “pawn” and Trump as a “gangster” who abused his power to manipulate supporters.
“The vulnerable are seduced by the strong, and that’s what happened here,” Shamansky said.
Walton, the judge, barred Thompson’s lawyer from calling Trump and former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Trump adviser, as trial witnesses. But the judge ruled that jurors could hear recordings of speeches that Trump and Giuliani delivered on Jan. 6, before the riot erupted. A recording of Trump’s remarks was played.
Shamansky claimed that Giuliani incited rioters by encouraging them to engage in “trial by combat” and that Trump provoked the mob by saying that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
Dreher told jurors that neither Trump nor Giuliani had the authority to “make legal” what Thompson did at the Capitol.
‘I was following presidential orders’
Thompson is charged with six counts: obstructing Congress’s joint session to certify the Electoral College vote; theft of government property; entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds; disorderly or disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds; disorderly or disruptive conduct in a Capitol building; and parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building.
The obstruction count is the only felony charge. The rest are misdemeanours.
Thompson drove from Ohio to Washington, D.C., with a friend, Robert Lyon, who also was arrested less than a month after the riot. Lyon pleaded guilty in March to two misdemeanours — theft of government property and disorderly conduct — and is to be sentenced June 3.
Thompson and Lyon took an Uber ride into Washington on the morning of Jan. 6. After Trump’s speech, they headed to the Capitol.
Thompson was wearing a bulletproof vest when he entered the building and went to the parliamentarian’s office. The FBI said agents later searched Lyon’s cellphone and found a video that showed a ransacked office and Thompson yelling: “Wooooo! ‘Merica Hey! This is our house!”
“[Trump] didn’t force you to go. He didn’t force you to walk every step of the way to the Capitol building, did he?” Dreher asked Thompson on Wednesday.
“No,” Thompson said.
“You chose to do that?” Dreher asked.
“I was following presidential orders, but yes,” Thompson said.
More than 770 people have been charged with federal crimes arising from the riot. Over 250 of them have pleaded guilty, mostly to misdemeanours. Thompson is the fifth person to be tried on riot-related charges.
On Monday, a jury convicted a former Virginia police officer, Thomas Robertson, of storming the Capitol with another off-duty officer. Last month, a jury convicted a Texas man, Guy Reffitt, of storming the building with a holstered handgun.
A judge hearing testimony without a jury decided cases against two other Capitol riot defendants at separate trials. U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden acquitted one of them of all charges and partially acquitted the other.