NEW YORK — Brendan Hunt, a Trump supporter who called for killing members of Congress days after the Jan. 6 insurrection, was found guilty Wednesday of making a death threat against elected officials.
Hundreds of people have been arrested following the Capitol attack. Although Hunt did not participate in the riot, his case is believed to be the first of those charged in connection with it to go to trial. His prosecution in Brooklyn federal court has been seen as a test of how far violent speech can go before it crosses a line into criminality and comes as such politically charged rhetoric on social media has come under increasing scrutiny.
Trial opens for Trump supporter accused of threatening Democrats in case tied to Jan. 6 insurrection
Hunt, 37, was charged with one count of making a threat to assault and murder a U.S. official. He was arrested Jan. 19, a day before President Biden’s inauguration, after the FBI received a tip about his video, titled “KILL YOUR SENATORS: Slaughter them all.” The clip had been posted on BitChute, a hosting site popular with far-right conservatives, after the deadly riot in Washington.
The jury concluded that separate menacing social media posts Hunt made in 2020 — including one directed at Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), then the Senate minority leader, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — did not rise to the level of criminality.
Hunt’s lawyers had argued that the elected officials he targeted were not aware of his comments at the time, and he did not contact their offices or tag the lawmakers’ social media accounts in any of his controversial posts, according to testimony and evidence presented during the trial. While offensive, his lawyers said, Hunt’s comments, which he made from his home in Queens, were constitutionally protected and not legitimate threats.
“The fact that [the officials] didn’t see any of those posts because he aimed it at them, because he sent it to them, that’s reason to doubt,” Hunt’s attorney Leticia Olivera argued in summations.
Hunt’s legal team also tried to distance him from those who participated in the riot — a scene of total mayhem as hundreds of supporters of former president Donald Trump, determined to prevent Congress from tallying the electoral college results, brutalized police and stormed into the Capitol. Hunt, by contrast, was a registered Democrat who voted for President Barack Obama before growing dissatisfied with his policies, the defense attorneys said.
Trump supporter argues alleged death threats against leading Democrats were fueled by pandemic boredom
Prosecutors said during the trial that Hunt’s remarks were specific. He offered detailed descriptions of how he wanted to end the lives of the people he claimed were complicit in “stealing” the election from Trump. To support the case, the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn offered evidence that appeared to illustrate Hunt’s deeply rooted racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic beliefs.
In the Jan. 8 video message that led to his conviction, Hunt called on followers to return to Washington with weapons on Inauguration Day when members of Congress would be reconvened, to “put some bullets in their [expletive] heads.” By then, he was angry with Republican lawmakers, too, for participating in the certification of Biden’s victory, and his threat appeared to address lawmakers in general.
“They’re going to come after us . . . so we have to kill them first,” he declared in the video, adding that if anyone watching were to give him a gun, “I’ll go there myself and shoot them and kill them.”
“We have to take out these senators and then replace them with actual patriots,” he added.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ian Richardson argued in his summation Tuesday that Hunt was clearly serious when he addressed his followers online: “You know they were true threats because of the calm and confident manner in which he conveyed the ‘Kill Your Senators’ video.” Richardson said Hunt’s statements also rang true because of the “graphic and vivid imagery” he invoked “to place people in fear.”
Hunt took the witness stand in his defense Tuesday, telling the jury he was not to be taken seriously when he talked about gunning down elected officials. In his testimony, he said his comments were in line with “this sort of rhetoric going on at the time” on the Internet.
Hunt also said he was heavily using marijuana and alcohol while struggling with depression and boredom during the coronavirus pandemic. He told the jury that the video he posted online after the Capitol riot was filmed while he was under the influence.
U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen had instructed jurors that while “intoxication in itself is not a legal defense to a criminal charge,” evidence of inhibition by drugs or alcohol can be considered to determine “whether he had intent.”
Prosecutors pressed Hunt about his apparent fixation with Adolf Hitler and Nazism, and evidence showing he used degrading language to describe immigrants.
In a text message exchange with his father, John Hunt, a former family court judge, the younger man suggested his family relocate to a “red state with a decent white population that upholds the Constitution.” He called New York City a “jungle” in which he could not find “a suitable white pro-American mate” to have children with, and used slurs for Black people, Jews, Asians and Latinos to describe the city’s diverse population, the evidence showed.
The Fordham University graduate, who had an administrative job in the New York state court system before his arrest, insisted while on the witness stand that he was just trying to get a rise out of his father.
A 57-year-old Black woman on the jury, who gave her name as Wendy, said the panel was “on the same page” from the beginning of its deliberations. She identified herself as a hospital worker who is of Caribbean descent and said she was “bothered a lot” by Hunt’s racist rhetoric. His testimony, she added, only revealed “more of him — the kind of person he is.”