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Trump-appointed judge convicts three Jan. 6 defendants but acquits two of them on obstruction charge

Patrick McCaughey, Tristan Stevens and David Mehaffie, who were charged in connection with a battle between the mob and police in a Capitol tunnel, learned their fates Tuesday.
Patrick McCaughey, left, Tristan Stevens, center, and David Mehaffie.
Patrick McCaughey, Tristan Stevens and David Mehaffie.NBC News

WASHINGTON — A federal judge handed down verdicts Tuesday in the trial of three Jan. 6 defendants that could have a major impact on the trajectory of Capitol attack prosecutions going forward.

Patrick McCaughey, Tristan Stevens and David Mehaffie were found guilty on most but not all charges. They had appeared for a bench, or nonjury, trial before U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden, a Donald Trump appointee who is the only federal judge in Washington, D.C., who has acquitted a Jan. 6 defendant.

Each defendant faced a number of criminal charges, including felony counts of assaulting, resisting or impeding officers and aiding and abetting; obstruction of an official proceeding; and civil disorder.

McCaughey was convicted on every count he faced, although the judge did not find that he had used a police shield as a deadly or dangerous weapon during one of the assaults he was convicted of. Federal prosecutors requested that McCaughey be taken into custody after his conviction, and he was led away in handcuffs.

Mehaffie was convicted of several counts, including felony counts of assaulting, resisting or impeding officers and civil disorder. The judge found him not guilty of a felony count of obstruction of an official proceeding, which would have exposed Mehaffie to significant prison time.

Stevens was also acquitted of the obstruction charge, but he was convicted on a number of other charges, including three felony counts of assaulting, resisting or impeding officers and a count of civil disorder.

Federal prosecutors have secured guilty verdicts on every charge brought against every defendant in jury trials so far. A mixed verdict in the bench trial of McCaughey, Stevens and Mehaffie may encourage even more defendants to try their luck at bench trials when the Justice Department, the FBI and the federal court system in Washington are struggling to keep pace with a massive investigation that has packed the court docket, with hundreds more arrests still yet to come.

While McFadden had previously acquitted two defendants on misdemeanor charges (one defendant on all charges, another on one of his charges), neither he nor any other judge or jury had acquitted a Capitol defendant on a felony charge. That changed Tuesday.

The case centers on the location of some of the most brutal violence on Jan. 6, 2021, at the top of the platform that had been set up for President Joe Biden's inauguration. The "tunnel" at the top of the temporary scaffolding — which one judge referred to as "the entranceway for Lady Gaga" because of her performance at the inauguration — was the scene of the most violent clashes between rioters and police, as hundreds of Trump supporters tried to force their way inside the Capitol. Police officers sustained multiple serious injuries at the location as rioters dragged them out of the tunnel, including former Washington Police Officer Michael Fanone, who had a stun gun driven into his neck.

Online sleuths dubbed McCaughey #ThePinman, Stevens #ShaggyProfessor, and Mehaffie #TunnelCommander. Online sleuths identified Mehaffie with the help of a facial recognition hit on his profile. He earned the nickname because video shows Mehaffie serving as a kind of crossing guard for rioters, standing above and watching the battle while directing other rioters in and out of the tunnel. He is also seen grabbing a stick as officers try to force him off the ledge.

Video played at trial also shows Mehaffie encouraging members of the mob to climb over a retaining wall on the restricted grounds of the U.S. Capitol before he reaches the tunnel where some of the worst violence of Jan. 6 took place.

"If we can't fight over this wall, we can't win this battle! Come on!" Mehaffie yells as he encourages others over the retaining wall.

A scene from a tunnel in the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
A scene from a tunnel in the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, featuring Mehaffie, standing and pointing at the entrance to the tunnel (in front of the Trump flag).NBC News

Mehaffie testified at his trial and portrayed his mention of a "battle" as an ideological battle rather than a physical one.

"If you believe our country’s in trouble, we certainly are in, in a battle as to whether you stand up, we get called names and get lumped into groups. So that is exactly the battle I’m talking about," Mehaffie testified. "If you can’t enter into the battle of ideas, you’ve, you’ve lost all your freedoms."

Mehaffie conceded, under cross-examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kimberly Paschall, that the mob "knew" that police "wanted us to leave." Under questioning from his own lawyer, he also said he wished he hadn't held a stolen police shield up for the cheering crowd, saying it was "exactly the opposite" of what he claimed he wanted to convey.

Patrick McCaughey III at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Patrick McCaughey III at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

MPD Officer Daniel Hodges, who was crushed in a door during the Jan. 6 attack, testified for the prosecution about how he was pinned by a police shield being held by defendant McCaughey.

“It, combined with everything else that was going on, made it difficult to breathe,” Hodges testified. “Being crushed by the shield and the people behind it … leaving me defenseless, injured.”

“There is no good way to fight back against it,” Hodges said. “You have to endure the pressure that it creates.”

U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell also testified, the second time he's done so in a Capitol attack trial.

Video shows Stevens grabbing a baton, but his defense attorney suggested that Stevens was only trying to defend himself, according to The Washington Post.

“If my memory serves correct, we the officers were the ones on duty that day, not him,” Gonell responded, according to The Washington Post.

Tristan Stevens, indicated by the red square, at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Tristan Stevens, indicated by the red square, at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.Dept. of Justice

Video also shows Stevens asking officers if they knew "what happens to" traitors, as WUSA9 reported.

"They get tied to a post and shot," a person identified in court filings as Stevens said, WUSA9 reported. "Are you ready for that?"

Judge McFadden said Tuesday that he relied mostly on video in the case, saying that the officers who testified in the trial added "little" to what the video showed. McFadden — a former police officer himself — critiqued officers Hodges and Gonell, saying the two acted more as victims and less as witnesses when they testified on the stand, although he praised them for their actions on Jan. 6.

“No police officer should have had to endure these attacks,” McFadden said.

In the sprawling Capitol investigation, the FBI has arrested more than 850 people, and more than 350 defendants have pleaded guilty. Sentences have ranged from probation to a decade in federal prison for a former New York City Police Department officer who assaulted a Washington, D.C., police officer on Jan. 6 and then lied on the stand.

Eight Capitol attack defendants who took their cases to a jury — Guy ReffittThomas RobertsonDustin ThompsonThomas WebsterTimothy Hale-Cusanelli, Anthony Robert Williams, Matthew Bledsoe, and Erik Herrera — were convicted on every count.