WASHINGTON — A U.S. Army reservist who worked on a Navy base stormed the U.S. Capitol because he wanted to kick off a civil war and create “a clean slate,” a federal prosecutor said Tuesday at the start of the New Jersey man's trial.
But a lawyer for Timothy Hale-Cusanelli told jurors that “groupthink” and a desperate desire “to be heard” drove him to follow a mob into the Capitol. Hale-Cusanelli shouldn't have entered the building on Jan. 6, 2021, defense attorney Jonathan Crisp acknowledged during the trial's opening statements.
“But the question of why he was there is what is important," Crisp added.
Hale-Cusanelli is charged with obstructing the joint session of Congress convened to certify President Joe Biden's electoral victory. He isn't charged with engaging in any violence or property destruction that day.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Fifield played a video that captured Hale-Cusanelli yelling profanities at police officers guarding the Capitol and screaming, “The revolution will be televised!”
“This was not a peaceful protest,” she said.
In pretrial court filings, prosecutors presented evidence that coworkers described Hale-Cusanelli as a white supremacist, a Nazi sympathizer and a Holocaust denier who wore a Hitler-style mustache to work. On Hale-Cusanelli’s cellphone, investigators found photos of him with the distinctive mustache along with pro-Nazi cartoons.
It's unclear from online court filings how much of that evidence, if any, will be admissible at trial. In her opening statements, Fifield only made a brief reference to Hale-Cusanelli having bigoted views about Jewish people.
Crisp has argued that any testimony about Hale-Cusanelli's alleged statements about Jewish people and their role in the U.S. government would be "highly prejudicial in nature without substantive value."
Crisp said Hale-Cusanelli believed then-President Donald Trump's false claims about a stolen election. But the defense attorney said Hale-Cusanelli went to Washington, D.C., to peacefully protest, wearing a suit while many others wore tactical gear.
Hale-Cusanelli's trial is the fifth before a jury and the seventh overall for a Capitol riot case. The first four juries unanimously convicted the riot defendants of all charges.
U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden, who is presiding over Hale-Cusanelli's trial, decided two other Capitol riot cases after hearing testimony without a jury. After bench trials, McFadden acquitted one of the defendants of all charges and partially acquitted the other.
More than 800 people have been charged with Capitol riot-related crimes. Many of then are military veterans. Hale-Cusanelli is among a few who were on active duty at the time of the riot.
Hale-Cusanelli was arrested less than two weeks after the attack and has remained jailed since February 2021.
Before his arrest, Hale-Cusanelli lived in Colts Neck, New Jersey, and worked there as a security contractor at Naval Weapons Station Earle, where he had a “secret” security clearance. He also was a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves.
One Navy seaman said that Hale-Cusanelli told him “he would kill all the Jews and eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and he wouldn’t need to season them because the salt from their tears would make it flavorful enough,” according to prosecutors. Other coworkers recalled Hale-Cusanelli making derogatory remarks about women, Black people and other minorities, prosecutors said.
Jurors are expected to hear testimony from a roommate who lived with Hale-Cusanelli on the base and recorded their conversation about the riot.
Fifield said Hale-Cusanelli told his roommate that the riot felt like a civil war and hoped that it “would provide a clean slate.” He also paraphrased a Thomas Jefferson quotation in saying that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” according to the prosecutor.
Crisp said Hale-Cusanelli was “full of adrenaline and stupidity” when he returned to New Jersey and spoke to his roommate about his actions in Washington. The defense lawyer described him as a bombastic agitator prone to making “extreme statements to get attention."
Hale-Cusanelli was discharged from the Army Reserve and barred from the Navy base after his arrest.
Hale-Cusanelli is charged with five counts: obstruction of an official proceeding, entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds, disorderly or destructive conduct in a restricted building or grounds, disorderly conduct in a Capitol building, and parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building. The obstruction charge is a felony. The rest are misdemeanors.