WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A New Mexico county commissioner who founded a group called “Cowboys for Trump” faced trial on Monday on charges related to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, in an important test for prosecutors that could affect other criminal cases.
A federal judge in the District of Columbia began the trial for Couy Griffin, who is charged with breaching a restricted area protected by the U.S. Secret Service and engaging in disorderly conduct in that area. The trial is expected to end Tuesday with closing arguments.
U.S. criminal defendants have a right to a jury trial, but Griffin opted to be tried by a judge instead.
Griffin, 48, was photographed at the Capitol during the riot, and does not deny that he entered a barricaded area.
But Griffin contends that under the law he is accused of violating, the government must prove that he knew then-Vice President Michael Pence was present at the Capitol building or grounds at the same time he was.
Prosecutors have interpreted the law more broadly, saying it only requires that Griffin breached a Secret Service-protected area that Pence was in or would have been returning to.
U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden, the judge presiding over the case, will decide whether Griffin is guilty. It is unclear if McFadden will issue his ruling from the bench on Tuesday or in a later written decision.
Thousands of people stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, after a fiery speech in which then-President Donald Trump falsely claimed his election defeat was the result of widespread fraud, an assertion rejected by multiple courts, state election officials and members of his own administration.
About 800 people face criminal charges relating to the riot, which sent Pence and other lawmakers running for their lives, and some 200 have already pleaded guilty.
Griffin’s bench trial is seen as an important test case as the Justice Department attempts to secure convictions from the hundreds of defendants who have not taken plea deals.
The first jury trial for a Jan. 6 defendant ended in a decisive victory for prosecutors earlier this month. After a quick deliberation, a jury unanimously found a Texas man guilty on all five of the felony charges he faced, including bringing a gun onto the Capitol grounds and obstructing an official proceeding.
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Scott Malone, Nick Macfie, Bill Berkrot and Karishma Singh)