Juror in Oath Keepers trial reveals secrets from the deliberation room
Four people associated with the Oath Keepers were convicted on Monday, March 20, 2023, of conspiracy and obstruction charges stemming from the attack on the U.S. Capitol in the latest trial involving members of the far-right antigovernment extremist group. | John Minchillo/AP Photo
Jurors in the recently concluded trial of six Oath Keeper affiliates were “horrified” by a defense attorney’s effort to provoke his autistic client into a “breakdown” on the witness stand, one of those jurors said Tuesday in a newly released interview.
A woman who helped decide the fate of the six defendants sat last week for a 90-minute interview with C-SPAN — her employer of 32 years — just two days after the jury completed its work. She provided extraordinary details about the tense closed-door deliberations that resulted in four defendants being convicted of obstructing Congress for their role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Identified only as Ellen, the juror told C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb that several members of the jury cried in the courtroom while they watched one of those defendants, William Isaacs, take the stand under grilling from his own attorney. The jury interpreted the strategy as a “stunt” designed to accentuate Isaacs’ struggle with autism, she said.
“His defense attorney tried to get him to fall apart by yelling at him and not letting him wear his headset,” Ellen recalled. “He was torturing his client to get us to feel sympathy.”
What was worse, the juror recalled, was that the judge ultimately instructed the jury not to consider Isaacs’ autism as a defense against his potential crimes, which meant the entire spectacle had been “a waste of time.”
The result of the jury’s six-day deliberations was a conviction of four defendants — including Isaacs — on all of the charges they faced. A fifth defendant, Bennie Parker, was convicted of one felony count and a misdemeanor but acquitted of other charges, and a sixth, Michael Greene, was convicted of a single misdemeanor charge and acquitted of several others.
Jurors rarely provide public commentary about their service, especially not to the detailed degree that Ellen did in her C-SPAN interview. She revealed that she worked with Lamb for more than 30 years and agreed to sit with him after he contacted her following the trial. The result was an eye-opening look at the jury’s lengthy deliberations: the fault-lines, the close calls and the persuasion efforts that resulted in guilty verdicts on most of the counts.
Isaacs’ attorney, Charles Greene, acknowledged that most of the jury recoiled at his posture toward his autistic client. It was all by design, he said, because he viewed acquittal as possible only if the jury could see Isaacs’ profound struggle.
“The strategy was: The jury’s going to hate me, but usually when you kick a puppy, the jury hates the person who kicks the puppy but they have sympathy for the puppy,” Greene told POLITICO.
He said that he had prepped for the testimony for days, running it by Isaacs’ family to ensure it wouldn’t cause a medical episode, but said he didn’t warn Isaacs because he needed his client’s response to be genuine.
“We had to wing it … He couldn’t be prepared for it. He couldn’t know what was coming,” Greene said. “I was crying. I didn’t like doing it. The days leading up to it, just thinking about it, it was traumatic for me too. I had to do it in a way that came across as heartless.”
Ellen indicated that she and another juror who happened to be a lawyer helped spearhead a lot of the deliberations. Some jurors, she said, did not seem to have followed every twist and turn of the trial. Others, she said, seemed to have preconceived notions against convicting anyone regardless of the facts — which the jury had to overcome to arrive at its verdict. And when she completed her service, after a five-week trial and lengthy deliberations, Ellen came away with a conclusion: If she were ever on trial, she would waive her right to a jury and instead let the judge decide her fate.
“I would never want my fate in the hands of people who are mostly completely ill-equipped to understand what’s going on,” she said.
Ellen described the extraordinary volume of evidence jurors had to sift through as they considered the 34 counts against the six defendants — part of prosecutors’ video evidence trove that is unparalleled in American history. She said she grew exasperated at times with some jurors’ insistence that they had to rely only on direct evidence to reach a conviction, rather than circumstantial evidence that can point to someone’s guilt. But despite these frustrations, she ultimately compared the experience to “12 Angry Men” and a “made-for-TV movie” in which jurors understood the gravity of their charge and the significance of the case they had just witnessed.
Ellen indicated that of the four defendants who took the stand “three did harm to themselves by testifying.” One of them, she said, was Bennie Parker, whose testimony she said helped convince the jury that there was a plan to storm the Capitol even before the group arrived at the building. That testimony, she said, damaged other defendants, including Parker’s wife Sandra, who was convicted on several counts for which Parker — who didn’t enter the building — was acquitted.
Another defendant, Connie Meggs — whose husband Kelly Meggs was convicted of seditious conspiracy in November for his Jan. 6 actions — made implausible claims on the stand that led the jury to doubt her testimony, Ellen said.
Ellen saved her harshest remarks for some of the defense lawyers in the case, who she said at times acted in ways that perplexed and even upset the jury. For example, the lawyer for one defendant, Laura Steele, didn’t put on a case for his client but noticeably laughed repeatedly throughout the trial, Ellen said.
“I was horrified,” she said.
As she went through each of the counts the jury considered, Ellen said the decision on convicting four defendants of “obstruction of an official proceeding” — a felony that carries a 20-year maximum sentence — was relatively “easy.”
“Did they obstruct Congress? Yes. Next,” she said.
What was more in dispute was how to handle the two defendants who never entered the Capitol: Parker and Michael Greene. Some jurors appeared convinced that only those who went inside the building could be convicted of the charge, and Ellen said she disagreed, citing the testimony of police officers who insisted Congress couldn’t return until the entire Capitol grounds were cleared of rioters.
Ultimately, Parker and Greene were both acquitted of the charge, though Parker was convicted of conspiracy to obstruct Congress — a result of what Ellen said was his own testimony about his thought process outside the Capitol.
“The jury was so divided on this,” she said, noting that some had considered whether Parker should only be convicted of a misdemeanor trespassing charge. She noted that jurors were shown a long gun that Parker had stashed at a house in Virginia before traveling to Washington.
Ellen insisted that the jury was focused entirely on the facts and law and did not enter the case with preconceived notions about the defendants. At times, she said, they grappled with the “heartbreaking” story of the Parkers, an older couple who were members of an Ohio-based militia before deciding to come to Washington with Jessica Watkins, a local Oath Keepers leader.
“They said they wanted to fight. But I don’t think they meant that literally at first,” Ellen said, adding, “There was a lot of sympathy. We feel like they stumbled into something.”
It was Bennie Parker’s interview with a foreign journalist “that I think just sealed his fate,” she added, noting that he told the interviewer what the mob was doing was likely illegal but “there’s so many of us, what could they possibly do to us.” And Parker added, “We are prepared to bring arms,” she recalled.
Ellen said some of the jurors have kept in touch since the trial and have continued to text about developments now that they’re able to read news about the case and understand the perception of their verdict.
She said she was shocked that she was allowed to join the jury, given her long history at C-SPAN.
She remembered thinking, “How could they allow a person from the media, who their staff was in the middle of the insurrection and various television equipment was being destroyed from other networks that could’ve been ours. I don’t even know if it was or wasn’t.”
Ellen said she volunteered during jury selection that she worked for C-SPAN, finding it odd that she was never asked to identify an employer until the later rounds of questioning. Though three defense witnesses jumped up to question her, they ultimately agreed she could be an impartial juror.
“Did you want to be on the jury?” Lamb asked.
“Yes,” Ellen replied.
“When did you make that decision?” Lamb said.
“When I get the summons,” she added. “I’ve always wanted to be on a jury my whole life.”