A member of the Proud Boys that prosecutors allege led others in the right-wing street gang into battle on Jan. 6 was ordered released Wednesday pending trial.
The chief U.S. district judge for the District of Columbia, Beryl Howell, tore into prosecutors as they hesitated when pressed on certain claims they’d made about the defendant, Ethan Nordean, including that he’d led a plan to split the Proud Boys into individual groups during their alleged attack.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason McCullough said the government stood by that claim, but prosecutors weren’t willing to offer more evidence of it in court on Wednesday.
“The government is willing to accept that as a disputed fact,” McCullough said.
By the end of the hearing, the judge seemed peeved at the lack of information providing the basis for that and other claims.
“He was the leader of a march down to the Capitol,” Howell said of Nordean shortly before she ruled that he could be released. “Once they got there, it’s not clear what leadership role this defendant took at all to the people inside the Capitol.”
Nordean was indicted by a federal grand jury Wednesday, on top of the existing criminal complaint that was the basis of his detention thus far.
According to court filings from prosecutors, Nordean played a key role in leading his fellow Proud Boys to the Capitol and, as they alleged in a filing Monday, pursued “specific plans to: split up into groups, attempt to break into the Capitol building from as many different points as possible, and prevent the Joint Session of Congress from Certifying the Electoral College results.”
The government noted that Norden was a “former body builder” who moved near the front of a crowd as members of the Proud Boys and others dismantled metal barricades that marked the police perimeter on Capitol grounds. The government also noted that multiple radios were distributed among the Proud Boys for use during the event.
McCullough on Wednesday also focused on Nordean’s alleged violent rhetoric and invocations of “the spirit 1776.”
“That is not simply a kind of affection for three-cornered hats and saltwater taffy,” McCullough said. “That was an indication of an interest in bringing about violence, and that is precisely what happened.”
Nordean’s defense has countered that Nordean didn’t receive the alleged radio in question until after Jan. 6, and that unlike other Proud Boys, Nordean didn’t carry a weapon and he’s not accused of threatening police. The tactical gear on which prosecutors have focused has long been a uniform of sorts for Proud Boys, the defense argued.
Nordean is accused of knowingly entering a restricted building, violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds, obstructing or impeding an official proceeding, and aiding and abetting injury or depredation against government property.
Wednesday’s hearing was, even apart from the matter at hand, a mess: Proceedings were delayed at several points due to technical difficulties, and at one point Nordean’s lawyer began obliviously speaking over Judge Howell’s attempts to interject for so long that the judge began yelling at him to stop.
“You’re going to have to stop long enough for someone to interrupt you!” Howell said, to which Nordean’s lawyer, David Smith, apologized.
But, by the end of the hearing, Howell was clear that she believed Nordean was eligible for pre-trial release.
Nordean’s alleged actions were “dangerous” and “offensive,” she said, “but it doesn’t necessarily weight in favor of pre-trial detention.”