Capitol Riot Ruling Separates Assaults, Plots From Cheering

An accused rioter caught carrying hand restraints at the U.S. Capitol will get a new chance at release on bail, after the federal appeals court in Washington ordered a judge to reconsider a ruling that the man and his mother remain behind bars pending trial.

Eric Munchel, of Tennessee, became one the early emblems of the Jan. 6 riot after he was seen on camera carrying plastic handcuffs, known as zip ties, around the building. He was accompanied by his mother, Lisa Eisenhart, who was captured in video footage chanting, “Treason! Treason!” inside the Capitol, according to the U.S. The government is prosecuting hundreds of people accused of storming the site to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the November presidential election.

In its decision on Friday, the appeals court made a sharp distinction between degrees of wrongdoing at the Capitol, noting that Munchel and Eisenhart “did not vandalize any property or commit violence.”

Capitol Riot Ruling Separates Assaults, Plots From Cheering

“Those who actually assaulted police officers and broke through windows, doors, and barricades, and those who aided, conspired with, planned, or coordinated such actions, are in a different category of dangerousness than those who cheered on the violence or entered the Capitol after others cleared the way,” the court said. Munchel and Eisenhart have both pleaded not guilty.

Cuts Both Ways

The decision stopped short of calling for the release of the two defendants. The court simply ordered the district judge to consider more evidence before reaching a new bail decision. But in the coming weeks the ruling could give defense lawyers a new argument for release on bond for clients charged with relatively minor crimes, even as it increases the pressure on defendants facing more serious accusations.

In the Munchel case, the defendants were set to be freed after a magistrate judge in Tennessee initially concluded that they weren’t flight risks and could be released on bail with strict conditions, including GPS monitoring. But after a hearing in February, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in Washington ordered their detention on the grounds that Munchel was carrying a dangerous weapon in the Capitol -- a Taser stun device holstered on his hip, according to the U.S.

“We conclude that the District Court did not demonstrate that it adequately considered, in light of all the record evidence, whether Munchel and Eisenhart present an identified and articulable threat to the community,” the appeals court said.

The Justice Department declined to comment on Friday’s decision. Lawyers for Munchel and Eisenhart didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mounting Pushback

The decision comes as prosecutors face mounting pushback from defense lawyers and some judges in the Capitol riot investigation.

On Tuesday, a federal judge rebuked the Justice Department for leaking details of the investigation to the news media, after the former top prosecutor in Washington appeared on “60 Minutes” to discuss the probe.

In some cases, the government has had to walk back evidence of wrongdoing submitted in court. In January, a federal prosecutor in Arizona claimed that some rioters had planned to “capture and assassinate” elected officials. After the comment made headlines, the U.S. attorney in Washington cautioned reporters that the government had found no evidence of such plans, warning of a “disconnect” between U.S. prosecutors in different jurisdictions. The prosecutor in Arizona later asked the judge to strike the assassination claim from the court record.

Meanwhile, defense lawyers have focused on picking holes in the factual allegations against their clients. Donovan Crowl is one of 10 people charged with participating in a conspiracy orchestrated by the far-right Oath Keepers to disrupt the certification of the election, one of the highest-profile cases to emerge from the riot. In a legal filing on Friday, Crowl argued that some of the claims the government has made about his participation in the conspiracy are false.

The U.S. accused Crowl of participating in a military-style training exercise with the Oath Keepers in advance of the riot. In the new filing, Crowl called that claim a “glaring error,” saying text messages he has presented to the government show he was actually working at the time of the training session.

In the same Oath Keepers case, a judge in Washington granted bail to one of the alleged leaders of the conspiracy, Thomas Caldwell, declaring that “there’s evidence here that I think is favorable to Mr. Caldwell.”

The Munchel case is U.S. v. Eric Munchel, 21-3010, U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia (Washington).

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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