Monday, July 15, 2024

Man accused of attacking Paul Pelosi, stirring up right-wing conspiracies, faces San Francisco jury

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A police body-camera video viewed worldwide showed a man hammering the skull of Paul Pelosi, the husband of the former House speaker, after the attacker smashed through the windows of the San Francisco couple’s home in what he described to investigators as a plot to interrogate the Democratic lawmaker and possibly “break her kneecaps.”

Despite what seems like overwhelming evidence against David DePape, 43, a political extremist and conspiracy theorist accused of assaulting Paul Pelosi and attempting to kidnap Nancy Pelosi in October 2022, the federal trial that opens on Thursday in San Francisco won’t be so straightforward.

U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley has rejected the idea that this is a simple “open and shut” assault case, arguing that the government bears the “heavy burden” of proving that DePape intended to kidnap the former speaker when he broke into her home, and that he assaulted Paul Pelosi with the intent to interfere with the lawmaker’s official duties or retaliate against her.

DePape, a Canada native who spent years running in eclectic circles in the Bay Area before spiraling into far-right conspiracies, faces up to a combined 50 years in prison if convicted. He’s pleaded not guilty to both charges.

A jury was selected Monday after prosecutors and federal public defenders spent the last few weeks arguing over what evidence will be admissible, including the police body-camera footage and the police interview with DePape after his arrest.

National commentary and hype surrounding the case reflect the current disinformation and extremist trends that have consumed certain pockets of the country and divided the American electorate, including how conspiracies such as QAnon — the unfounded idea that a cabal of Satan-worshiping elites in Washington, D.C., are running a child sex ring — have infused the political discourse and led to increased threats of violence against public officials and their families.

The attack itself has inspired conspiracies from some of the most politically influential and powerful pundits, including billionaire Elon Musk, former Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump Jr., son of the former president, who’ve used the alleged assault to mock the Pelosi family or cast doubt on certain details to use as fodder for their conservative bases.

Because of the heated political environment, the government might use the opportunity to “demonstrate to the public that they’re taking a case like this very seriously and are going to prosecute someone to the nth degree,” said Louis Shapiro, a prominent L.A. defense attorney.

DePape is accused of traveling from his Richmond, Calif., residence to the Pelosis’ Pacific Heights home in the early morning of Oct. 28, 2022, in search of the House speaker— allegedly yelling out “Where’s Nancy?” after breaking into the home. Speaker Pelosi was in Washington at the time with her protective detail.

DePape carried a backpack full of zip ties, tape, rope and a hammer, which he used along with his own body force to smash his way into the house, according to court records and video.

While the assault charge will be much easier to prove given the video evidence, the kidnapping charge is a “pretty high bar” for the prosecution to clear, said Nathan Hochman, a former federal prosecutor and defense attorney and candidate for Los Angeles County district attorney.

“The assault part of it, I don’t even know what the defense would be,” Hochman said. “But to go from ‘Where’s Nancy? Where’s Nancy?” to saying that he wanted to kidnap her? … If all you wanted to do was go to Nancy Pelosi’s house to scream at her and say she is responsible for fill-in-the-blank, that’s not attempted kidnapping.”

A brutal attack

DePape told police he had gone to the Pelosis’ house hoping to find the lawmaker, whom he considered the Democratic Party’s “leader of the pack.” During his interview with police, he drifted into other conspiracies against Hillary Clinton, campaign spying and other ideas that Democrats worked against former President Trump to eventually “steal the election.”

He planned to hold Speaker Pelosi hostage and “talk to her,” he said.

“If she told the truth, I’d let her go scot-free,” he said. But if she lied, he was going to “break her kneecaps.”

But instead of finding Pelosi, DePape was “surprised” to encounter her sleeping husband. DePape told the confused Paul Pelosi that he was looking for his wife.

After a few minutes, Pelosi said he needed to use the bathroom and managed to make a secret 911 call on his cellphone.

Pelosi told the dispatcher that he didn’t know DePape, but that the intruder was waiting for his wife.

“He thinks everything is good,” Pelosi said. “I’ve got a problem, but he thinks everything is good.”

A San Francisco police officer arrived to the Pelosis’ around 2:30 a.m. and knocked on the front door. Pelosi answered with DePape standing next to him. Both men had their hands on a large hammer.

Police demanded they drop the weapon, but DePape forced it from Pelosi, swung it above his head and struck the 82-year-old man on the head, body-camera video shows.

Officers immediately ran into the home and tackled DePape. Pelosi spent several days in a hospital being treated for a fractured skull and serious injuries to his arm and hands.

A fair trial in Nancy Pelosi’s hometown

San Francisco is home to a number of political legends, including the late-Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

But few can boast the political prominence and power of Nancy Pelosi, the first female House speaker, who has been a household name for more than three decades during her tenure representing San Francisco in Washington.

Attorneys for DePape unsuccessfully petitioned the court this summer to move the trial to Eureka, arguing that Pelosi’s political celebrity in the Bay Area, the “pervasive media attention” on the attack and DePape’s right-wing political beliefs were “poisoning the well” of prospective jurors.

During jury selection, many said they had strong views on the Pelosi family, positive and negative, and read and watched news coverage of the attack. For both the prosecution and defense, however, the most crucial part was picking jurors who could set aside their personal beliefs and judge the case fairly, Shapiro said.

Several jurors said they could, even with their opposition or support for the lawmaker and Paul Pelosi. Others said they had already determined DePape’s guilt.

The attorneys questioned the jurors as DePape, who had exchanged his usual orange jail jumpsuit for a blue sweater and dress slacks, sat nearby. During pretrial meetings, DePape has remained calm and composed, occasionally talking with his attorneys but never speaking out of turn.

Despite public questions over DePape’s mental health, his attorneys are not expected to raise that argument during trial and did not question the jury on the issue of competence. Still, one potential juror said he thought DePape “needs help.” Two men said they believed the Pelosis had used their powerful positions for financial gain, specifically in the stock market, and another man, who was dismissed, said he lacked sympathy for the family.

Federal public defenders Angela Chuang and Jodi Linker focused on jurors who expressed concerns with seeing depictions of violence, saying that evidence presented in court would include graphic and bloody footage of Paul Pelosi getting “seriously hurt.”

“There is no other way to put it. It’s disturbing,” Chuang said. “There’s going to be body-cam footage of someone being hit in the head, Mr. Pelosi being hit in the head with a hammer, that will be shown at trial.”

If someone couldn’t handle seeing blood and gore, Chuang said, “This may not be the right trial for you.”

Three women and 12 men were selected as the jury, which includes three alternates. The trial is expected to end by Nov. 15.

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