Capitol riot trial of former Army reservist and alleged 'Nazi sympathizer' begins
Editor's Note: This story contains descriptions of offensive language, including the use of racist slurs.
A former Army reservist stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 intent on inciting a second "civil war," federal prosecutors said in court on Tuesday. The defendant, Timothy Hale-Cusanelli, is the latest alleged Capitol rioter to face trial, and brings a history of what both the prosecution and defense call "extreme" statements. The jury saw a series of such statements in the form of text messages Hale-Cusanelli sent prior to the riot, in which he used anti-Black, anti-gay and antisemitic slurs.
Hale-Cusanelli's attorney, meanwhile, insisted that his client's statements shouldn't be taken literally, that he was "desperate to be heard" when he joined the riot, and did not intentionally disrupt the counting of electoral votes that day.
Over the course of an anticipated week-long trial, jurors will have to decide which case is more persuasive. On Wednesday, prosecutors intend to call Hale-Cusanelli's former roommate, who acted as a confidential human source for the government and secretly recorded Hale-Cusanelli talking about his actions on Jan. 6.
Hale-Cusanelli of New Jersey, has not been accused of assaulting police or inflicting property damage during the attack. Unlike other defendants facing similar charges, however, Hale-Cusanelli has been held in pre-trial detention for more than a year. A federal judge - appointed by former President Trump - found that Hale-Cusanelli posed too much of a danger to the public, in part because of his alleged "white supremacist" ideology. As described in court papers, Hale-Cusanelli once went to his job as a security guard at a Naval weapons station while sporting a "Hitler mustache," and told a co-worker that, "Hitler should have finished the job."
Several Jan. 6 defendants who were detained in the Washington D.C. jail with Hale-Cusanelli have also described him to NPR as a "white supremacist." Those detainees said he was known to make racist comments and claimed he etched anti-semitic drawings on jailhouse tables. Hale-Cusanelli has denied that he is a white supremacist, and his attorney denied that he made antisemitic drawings at the jail.
In court on Tuesday, Hale-Cusanelli wore a light purple button down shirt with a striped tie. He was closely-shaven with close-cropped dark hair. He listened quietly and occasionally took notes through the day's proceedings.
Jurors will not see certain evidence prosecutors wanted to include about Hale-Cusanelli's alleged "Nazi sympathizer" ideology, such as photos of Hale-Cusanelli with a "Hitler mustache." The judge, Trevor McFadden, ruled that such evidence would unfairly prejudice the jury without shedding enough light on the specific crimes Hale-Cusanelli is charged with.
Still, both the prosecution and defense said Hale-Cusanelli expressed "extreme" views. The text messages presented by prosecutors in court showed Hale-Cusanelli using overtly racist language, including multiple uses of the n-word and a racist reference to Vice President Kamala Harris. At one point, he expressed the belief that Democrats might steal the presidential election through "n****r rigging."
Prosecutor Kathryn Fifield said in her opening statement that Hale-Cusanelli joined the first wave of rioters to breach the U.S. Capitol, and used military-style hand-signals to urge other rioters to join the mob inside. He allegedly spent 40 minutes inside the building before exiting. Hale-Cusanelli lived and worked at Naval Weapons Station Earle, where he had "secret" level security clearance and access to military munitions. Given his alleged actions on Jan. 6, prosecutors portrayed Hale-Cusanelli as a security threat.
After Hale-Cusanelli returned home to New Jersey, agents with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and the FBI began investigating. Investigators spoke to Hale-Cusanelli's roommate at the base, and he agreed to secretly wear a recording device on behalf of the government and tape Hale-Cusanelli. Fifield said the recording showed Hale-Cusanelli discussing how he believed "Jewish interests" controlled the Biden administration, and describing the Capitol riot as "just a taste of what's to come."
Hale-Cusanelli's defense attorney, Jonathan W. Crisp, acknowledged in his opening statement that his client can be abrasive, describing him as "bombastic."
Hale-Cusanelli is "that guy you've met who just wants to agitate and say things," Crisp told the jury. "Tim is mouthy. He likes to garner attention," Crisp said, and "he offends people along the way."
On Jan. 6, Hale-Cusanelli traveled to Washington, D.C. to see former President Trump's speech, because he wanted to be "part of something," Crisp said. Unlike other rioters who were decked out in military-style combat gear, Hale-Cusanelli was wearing a suit and tie with a red MAGA hat.
Much of the government's case relies on video evidence, and Crisp said the defense would not dispute that Hale-Cusanelli breached the Capitol building on Jan. 6.
"He was unequivocally in the Capitol," Crisp said, and "he should not have been there."
Instead, Crisp outlined an argument that Hale-Cusanelli did not specifically intend to disrupt the electoral count process in Congress that day, and got caught up in "groupthink." One of the key charges in the trial, obstruction of an official proceeding, requires that prosecutors prove Hale-Cusanelli's intent to impede Congress.
After opening statements, jurors heard testimony from U.S. Capitol Police Inspector Monique Moore, who described the security preparations that day, as well as the unfolding chaos as rioters overwhelmed the Capitol. The jury also viewed footage from surveillance cameras around the building. At one point, a few jurors audibly gasped when they saw video of an unidentified rioter hitting a police officer with a trash can.
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