NEW YORK – Brendan Hunt, an enthusiastic 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.
It took the jury about three hours to reach a verdict. They found that comments Hunt made in a disturbing video posted online two days after the U.S. Capitol riot amounted to a genuine threat to murder lawmakers in Washington.
He faces up to 10 years in prison.
The jury also concluded that 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 prosecution in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn has been seen as a test of how far violent speech can go before it crosses a line into criminality, at a time when politically-charged and violent rhetoric on Twitter and other platforms is commonplace. Hundreds of people were arrested following the Capitol attack in a Justice Department push to hold people accountable. Hunt’s case is believed to be the first of those charged in connection to the riot to go to trial.
Hunt, 37, was charged with one count of making a threat to assault and murder a United States official. He was arrested Jan. 19, a day before President Joe 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 case centered on several disturbing social media posts and uploads that Hunt’s lawyers said were removed from the internet before his arrest. The defense also argued that the elected officials he targeted were not aware of his comments at the time.
Hunt did not participate in the Capitol riot, nor did he contact their offices or tag the lawmakers’ social media accounts in any of his controversial posts, according to testimony and evidence. His lawyers argued that his comments, made from his Queens home, were constitutionally protected and that, while offensive, were 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 tried to distance him from the type of extreme Trump loyalist who attended the riot. That day, former Vice President Mike Pence was rushed to a secure location along with other officials. Capitol occupants were terrorized and feared for their lives.
Hunt, in contrast to the rioters, was a registered Democrat who voted for Barack Obama before becoming dissatisfied with his policies, the attorneys said.
Prosecutors said at 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 former President Donald 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 dissatisfied with Republicans too for participating in the certification of Biden’s victory.
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.
Hunt added 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. “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 Court 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.”
Hunt’s testimony, during which he was pressed by prosecutors about his fixation with Hitler and Nazism, likely left an impression on jurors. Prosecutors also confronted him with his own degrading language used 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 also called New York City a “jungle” in which he could not find “a suitable white pro-American mate” to have children with – using slurs for Blacks, Jews, Asians and Latinos to describe the city’s diverse population.
The disgruntled Fordham University graduate, who had an administrative job in the New York state court system before his arrest, also called immigrants “low I.Q. mongoloids.” ‘On the witness stand, Hunt insisted he was just trying to get a rise out of his father.
But ample evidence seen by the jury depicted a grown man entrenched in white supremacist ideology.
On Hunt’s hard drive were memes that mocked the death of Jews during the Holocaust and Nazi propaganda images. The panel also heard about a text exchange he had with a cousin who dropped him as a Facebook friend. Angered by this, Hunt threatened to “stick a knife” in the relative’s newborn baby.
A 57-year-old 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 called Hunt “immature” and said she was “bothered a lot” by his racist rhetoric.
His testimony only revealed “more of him – the kind of person he is,” said the juror, a hospital work who is Black and of Caribbean descent.