A handful of the US Capitol riot defendants whom prosecutors have grouped among the most extreme were told on Friday they could potentially be released from jail as they await trial, because – under the law – they aren’t considered that dangerous at this time.
The developments came in rapid fire from the Washington federal courthouse on Friday, starting with the first major ruling from an appeals court on how judges should determine which Capitol riot defendants stay in jail.
The DC Circuit Court of Appeals came down on the side of Eric Munchel and his mother, Lisa Eisenhart, who allegedly wore armor to the riot, taped themselves picking up plastic restraints in the Capitol and entered the Senate chamber while Eisenhart chanted, “Treason!”
The pair’s dangerousness, the court found, was specific to January 6 and the push of thousands of Donald Trump supporters on the day Congress was certifying the then-President’s election loss.
“The presence of the group was critical to their ability to obstruct the vote and to cause danger to the community,” the appeals court wrote. “Without it, Munchel and Eisenhart – two individuals who did not engage in any violence and who were not involved in planning or coordinating the activities – seemingly would have posed little threat.”
The court also said it had a “grave constitutional obligation” to look closely at the case, and must balance the security of the country during a time of war or insurrection with the rights of defendants before they are found guilty or acquitted.
In the hours after the appeals court ruling on Friday, federal judges decided that two defendants alleged to be among the Oath Keepers storming the Capitol, and one leader in the Proud Boys, could be released.
Yet not all Capitol riot defendants with court action on Friday are walking free from jail immediately.
The Justice Department has fought, sometimes over several rounds in court, to keep some of the more than 330 charged criminal defendants detained, especially if they allegedly were violent, carried weapons or were in touch with extremist groups that prosecutors say coordinated before January 6. Courts set a high bar to keep defendants in jail before trial.
Munchel and Eisenhart, as well as the Pennsylvania Proud Boys chapter leader Zachary Rehl – who appeared in court in Philadelphia on Friday – will have further proceedings in which judges will review their cases. Munchel and Eisenhart have pleaded not guilty.
Kelly Meggs, whom prosecutors call a major planner and coordinator among the Oath Keepers, and two others – brothers from Oregon associated with the Proud Boys – will stay in jail, judges decided on Friday.
“In our view, those who actually assaulted police officers and broke through windows, doors, and barricades, and those who aided, conspired with, planned, or coordinated such actions, are in a different category of dangerousness than those who cheered on the violence or entered the Capitol after others cleared the way,” the court of appeals wrote in its opinion, setting the day’s tone.
Oath Keepers detained or released
Following the DC Circuit’s ruling, trial-level federal Judge Amit Mehta took some time to digest it before holding a morning hearing on alleged Oath Keeper Connie Meggs’ detention.
She is charged with conspiracy alongside her husband, Kelly Meggs, who prosecutors say was a leader in the group’s planning before January 6. Prosecutors have highlighted how the pair went to gun training in Florida in September.
“The truth is the evidence against Ms. Meggs isn’t quite what it is against others” charged in the alleged Oath Keepers conspiracy, Mehta said, noting there wasn’t strong evidence showing her planning for the Washington siege or organizing backup firepower on January 6.
For a second alleged Oath Keeper conspiracy defendant, Donovan Crowl, the judge said Crowl’s conduct was more troubling than Connie Meggs’, because it involved discussion of planning for violence and bringing weapons to Washington.
“There is no evidence that he himself destroyed any property. There is no evidence that he himself engaged in any assaultive behavior,” Mehta said.
Their releases marked the third and fourth alleged Oath Keeper defendants whom Mehta has released out of 10 charged with conspiracy and other crimes. The defendants who have appeared in DC’s District Court so far have all pleaded not guilty.
But Kelly Meggs must stay in jail, Mehta decided. In his case, the judge drew a clear distinction between paramilitary leaders who prepared for violent clashes and their followers who came along.
“Mr. Meggs is someone who has presented himself through his words and his deeds, and his conduct, as someone who presents a danger,” Mehta said during a virtual court hearing.
“He has the mindset of someone who is prepared to fight and will do so in the streets,” Mehta said, pointing out that Meggs had texted an associate before January 6 that “this isn’t a rally.”
During one of the hearings, the Justice Department pushed back on claims from Meggs’ attorney that he and his wife never received paramilitary training. Prosecutors had released photographs of them with guns at a combat training event last year in Florida.
The threat of future violence is a key piece that judges consider when deciding to keep defendants imprisoned as they await trial, and prosecutors allege Kelly Meggs told the FBI wrongly that he didn’t participate in firearms training, another point that worked against him before the judge.
Prosecutors said the photographs show Connie and Kelly Meggs receiving “tactical firearms training” and “gunfight oriented training” at a shooting range in Leesburg, Florida. The facility that ran the training event posted the photos on social media in September, showing the Meggses and another man charged in the alleged Oath Keepers conspiracy among a group of eight posing with guns and certificates, according to court filings.
During the hearing, prosecutors said the class was about “how to attack and kill people” and should not be downplayed as training for how to be part of a protective detail.
But the Meggses’ lawyer disagreed, saying it was a two-hour “firearms safety” class from a well-known and reputable organization.
Allegations about members of the Oath Keepers and others preparing for January by doing basic training have popped up several times in the Capitol riot case.
In court on Friday, the Justice Department shied away from divulging more details about the Florida training facility that the Meggses visited, when pressed by the judge.