The first trial for a January 6 US Capitol attack defendant won’t have any members of the public, media or even the wife of the defendant in the courtroom to witness much of the proceedings, a federal judge decided on Monday.
Judge Dabney Friedrich decided not to allow any members of the public to witness the evidence presentation in person at the historic trial that’s expected to last more than a week. A few are being allowed to watch jury selection, which began Monday, and opening statements.
Guy Reffitt, from Texas, is accused of bringing a gun to the insurrection, battling with police, and afterward threatening his children to keep quiet. He has pleaded not guilty to five charges.
Friedrich cited space concerns due to stringent coronavirus protocols at the federal courthouse in Washington, DC, designed to ensure that jurors and witnesses at trials are spread out from one another. While the courthouse still has strict spacing and masking policies, Washington, DC’s citywide indoor mask requirement ends on Tuesday.
The situation highlights an ongoing struggle in federal courtrooms, which never allow recordings of their proceedings to be broadcast widely, between the integrity of jury trials and court administrators’ attempts to prevent the spread of disease.
The public and media is instead watching audio and video of the courtroom on closed-circuit TVs elsewhere in the courthouse, an alternative that 20 major media outlets said in a request to Friedrich is appreciated but still unacceptable under the Constitution’s provisions for transparency at criminal proceedings.
“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,” the group’s lawyers wrote.
“Because remote viewing of this historic trial cannot adequately substitute for in-courtroom access, and because it seems likely that even a reconfigured courtroom could accommodate a single journalist in attendance – serving as a representative for both the press and the general public – the Court’s current plan to exclude the press from Courtroom 14 would fall short of its constitutional obligation to take ‘every reasonable measure’ to accommodate press and public access.”
The media’s court filing described other cases where courts have ensured a representative of the press or public could see the courtroom action in person.
The group of outlets asking for more access are: CNN, ABC News, the Associated Press, Buzzfeed News, CBS News, Court TV, The Wall Street Journal, the E.W. Scripps Company, Gannett Co., Gray Media Group, the Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, NBC News, The New York Times, Newsy, Politico, Pro Publica, Tegna Inc., Vox Media and The Washington Post.
Friedrich has allowed Reffitt’s wife, Nicole Reffitt, and a few journalists to watch jury selection so far in person. A media representative will be able to witness opening statements from the courtroom, and potentially watch closing arguments there as well. But when witnesses are being called and evidence is being presented, the media and Reffitt’s wife will lose their access to the courtroom, the judge said.
Witness testimony isn’t expected to begin until Tuesday or Wednesday. As of lunchtime Monday, the judge has questioned 10 potential jurors individually, largely about what they know of the January 6 insurrection and their feelings about it.
Many of the potential jurors so far have said they have connections to the legal industry or the federal government and have strong feelings about the violence in the city on January 6.
None have said they knew much about Reffitt’s case already or recognized him, when looking at him from across the courtroom.