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Judge convicts three Capitol rioters of multiple felonies — but says DOJ didn't prove two obstruction counts

Patrick McCaughey III was found guilty Tuesday of seven felony counts. Co-defendants Tristan Chandler and David Mehaffie were also convicted of multiple felonies.

WASHINGTON — A federal judge convicted three men Tuesday of multiple felony counts each for joining the assault on police at the U.S. Capitol Building last year but acquitted two on the most serious obstruction charge – a ruling likely to be pored over by dozens of other defendants still awaiting trial.

Tuesday’s judgment comes a week after arguments closed in a bench trial before U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden, a former deputy attorney general who was appointed to the federal bench in 2017 by former President Donald Trump. The three defendants on trial– Patrick McCaughey III, Tristan Chandler Stevens and David Mehaffie – all faced a slew of charges for joining the mob that attacked dozens of D.C. and U.S. Capitol Police officers attempting to hold the Lower West Terrace Tunnel entrance to the building.

Each of the three men faced a number of counts of assaulting, resisting or impeding police (McCaughey three, Stevens four and Mehaffie one for aiding and abetting), and Judge McFadden dealt with those first Tuesday – finding all three guilty on each count they faced. He stopped short of agreeing to all of the Justice Department’s requests for dangerous weapon enhancements, however, finding only McCaughey’s actions met the criteria.

Credit: Department of Justice
(Left to right) Patrick McCaughey III, Tristan Chandler Stevens and David Mehaffie were all convicted of multiple felony counts for their roles in the assault on police at the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021.

At issue during trial was whether a riot shield, the object both McCaughey and Stevens were accused of using against police, could be considered a deadly or dangerous weapon and therefore qualify for an enhancement that could add years to a defendant’s potential prison time at sentencing. Judge McFadden ruled Tuesday that a shield could, in fact, meet the criteria – but not intrinsically in the way something like a gun might. Instead, he said, a defendant had to use the shield in a way likely to cause serious bodily injury or death. McFadden said Stevens had not done so when he used a shield to press against U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell and that McCaughey had similarly not done so when he repeatedly shoved a shield toward DC Police Officer Henry Foulds. But, Judge McFadden said, he had used the shield as a dangerous weapon when he used it to pin DC Police Officer Daniel Hodges against a doorframe.

Video played at trial shows McCaughey, then a 23-year-old from the affluent town of Ridgefield, Connecticut, at the very front of the mob inside the tunnel on Jan. 6 using a stolen riot shield to pressure the police line. Another rioter captured video of one of the most harrowing moments of the day when McCaughey used that shield to pin Hodges against a doorframe, where Hodges was crushed by the weight of the mob pressing against him. The video, released last year, shows another rioter ripping off Hodges’ gas mask and attacking him with a baton while he screams for help. Hodges testified at trial that he feared he would lose consciousness and become a liability to his fellow officers.

On Tuesday, Judge McFadden said that was enough to warrant the dangerous weapon enhancement. He also rejected testimony by McCaughey, who suggested a momentary effort to draw other officers’ attention to Hodges’ plight was a redeeming factor.

“Officer Hodges’ gutwrenching cries of pain shocked Mr. McCaughey into action,” Judge McFadden said, adding a short time later, “I note that even after he saw Officer Hodges injured, he carried on to battle Officer Foulds.”

Intent to Obstruct

Judge McFadden also convicted McCaughey of the most serious count of obstruction of an official proceeding, a felony charge that carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison. The judge said McCaughey’s testimony that he simply wanted to get inside to protest was unbelievable, and noted he’d made repeated references to legislators and told police, “Our issue is not with you.”

For the other two men, Judge McFadden said, the evidence was less clear. He said the government had proven that all three had been involved in a “violent and protracted struggle” on the steps of the Capitol – and that their actions had the “natural and probable effect” of stopping or impeding the certification of electoral college votes. But, he said, the government had failed to show enough evidence about Stevens’ motivations that day beside anger at Congress and had similarly failed to sufficiently rebut Mehaffie’s testimony that he believed former Vice President Mike Pence had no choice but to certify on Jan. 6. Mehaffie also testified that he believed the certification had completed by the time he arrived at the Capitol which, while inaccurate, raised reasonable doubt about his motivations, Judge McFadden said.

Stevens was a 25-year-old computer engineering student at the University of Western Florida when he joined the rally on Jan. 6. He was indicted on 10 counts, eight of them felonies. During trial, prosecutors played a video of Stevens outside the Capitol attempting to provoke and threaten police.

“Do you know what happens to traitors?” Stevens can be heard in a DC Police officer’s bodyworn camera footage. “They get tied to a post and shot. Are you ready for that?”

Stevens, like McCaughey, eventually made his way to the tunnel. There, video showed him also using a riot shield to try to force the police line backward. One of the officers Stevens was charged with assaulting, U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, testified at trial that Stevens impeded him from clearing the tunnel and, more specifically, from providing medical aid to another rioter who’d fallen unconscious and ultimately died.

The third defendant in the case, Mehaffie, was differently situated than the others. A 62-year-old business owner from Ohio, Mehaffie was not accused of assaulting police directly, but rather of aiding and abetting the mob’s efforts to push the police line back. In the 1990s, Mehaffie was an active member of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and was involved in a federal case alleging he and others had illegally blocked abortion clinics – although that case ended in mistrial. Prosecutors accused Mehaffie of using his experience as a protester and a political organizer to coordinate the mob’s assault on police on Jan. 6.

At trial earlier this month, assistant U.S. attorney Kimberly Paschall played a video showing Mehaffie urging other rioters to climb over a wall at the Capitol.

“If we can’t fight over this wall, we can’t win this battle! Come on!” Mehaffie could be heard saying in the video.

Surveillance video and bodyworn camera footage from officers in the tunnel showed Mehaffie was at the very front of the mob when another rioter broke open a door and the first confrontation between rioters and police began. Mehaffie eventually made his way back to the entrance of the tunnel, where he perched on a ledge and could be seen in videos appearing to organize rioters entering the tunnel, triumphantly holding up a stolen police riot shield and yelling for other rioters to, “Push! Push!” The video earned Mehaffie the moniker #TunnelCommander among a community of online sleuths known as Sedition Hunters who have dedicated themselves to trying to identify riot participants.

All of that was enough for Judge McFadden to convict Mehaffie of aiding and abetting the mob's effort to push police back through the tunnel – a decision he called “very straightforward” – but didn’t lead him to the conclusion that Mehaffie had intended to obstruct the joint session of Congress.

Mehaffie testified on the stand that he was mad about COVID-19 restrictions that had caused the shutdown of his business – although, as Judge McFadden pointed out during trial, they had been imposed by the governor of his home state of Ohio. Mehaffie also said he hadn’t intended to wind up at the front of the mob when it first breached doors inside the tunnel and had immediately wanted to get out. Assistant U.S. attorney Kimberly Paschall noted during cross-examination that Mehaffie had not left the area once he got back to the entrance of the tunnel, however, but had gotten up on a ledge and helped direct the crowd continuing to go inside. A photograph of Mehaffie on Jan. 6 also showed him on the Inaugural Stage near the entrance to the tunnel before many other rioters had reached the area.

Still, Judge McFadden – who has stood out among his colleagues in the D.C. District by suggesting the DOJ has not been “even-handed” in how it’s chosen to charge some Jan. 6 defendants compared with those arrested during protests and riots during the summer of 2020 – said he was not convinced the government’s case met its burden on the obstruction charge against Mehaffie.

“I think his testimony is enough to raise a reasonable doubt about his intent to enter the Capitol,” Judge McFadden said.

Ripple Effects

After dealing with obstruction, Judge McFadden convicted all three men of one more felony count of civil disorder each, and found Stevens and Mehaffie guilty of additional misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and committing an act of physical violence on Capitol grounds (aiding and abetting, in Mehaffie’s case).

Offering a somewhat contradictory explanation, Judge McFadden said it was clear to him Stevens, who he acquitted of obstruction of an official proceeding, had nevertheless intended to disrupt Congress.

“Regardless of whether Mr. Stevens intended to disrupt the certification based on his efforts to enter the Capitol, I find it beyond a reasonable doubt that he intended to disrupt the orderly flow of government business,” Judge McFadden said.

The judge also found McCaughey guilty of additional counts of disorderly conduct and engaging in physical violence in a restricted building or grounds – both with a dangerous weapon enhancement with the effect of turning them into felonies.

All told, Judge McFadden convicted Patrick McCaughey III of seven felony counts and two misdemeanors, Tristan Chandler Stevens of five felonies and four misdemeanors, and David Mehaffie of two felonies and two misdemeanors. Stevens, who potentially faces years in prison, will be sentenced on Jan. 13. Mehaffie, who likely faces a reduced sentencing range compared to his co-defendants, was scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 27.

McCaughey, convicted of both the top felony charge of obstruction of an official proceeding and of using a dangerous weapon to assault a D.C. Police officer, was taken from the courtroom by the U.S. Marshals Service and ordered to await his sentencing on Jan. 26 in custody. Like another defendant convicted of obstruction and assaulting police with a dangerous weapon, Thomas Webster, McCaughey could potentially face a recommended sentencing guideline of up to two decades behind bars. Last month, U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta ordered Webster to serve 10 years in prison.

Tuesday’s ruling was the first time a judge has acquitted a Jan. 6 defendant of a felony at trial. Although Judge McFadden’s ruling, notably deciding a riot shield was a dangerous weapon and the reasoning behind Stevens’ and Mehaffie’s acquittals, won’t be binding on other judges in the district, they’re sure to be noticed by the dozens of other defendants currently scheduled to go to trial in the coming months. They will be particularly relevant for three remaining defendants in the same indictment.

All three men were part of a larger group of nine defendants who were grouped together through a series of superseding indictments connected to the tunnel assault. Three of their co-defendants, Geoffrey Sills, Robert Morss and David Lee Judd, were convicted by Judge McFadden on Aug. 23 of multiple felony counts each following brief stipulated bench trials – an uncommon procedural move allowing them to avoid some charges without waiving their rights to appeal.

Three remaining defendants in the case – Christopher Quaglin, Steven Cappuccio and Federico Klein – were scheduled to begin a bench trial before Judge McFadden in April on many of the same charges.

McCaughey was represented in the case by Connecticut-based attorney Lindy Urso. Stevens was represented by Lauren Cobb, of Florida. Mehaffie was represented by attorney William Shipley, a former federal prosecutor based in Hawaii.

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