By Jan Wolfe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A New Mexico county commissioner who founded a group called “Cowboys for Trump” was found guilty by a judge on Tuesday of breaching the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021 riot, a second consecutive win at trial for the Justice Department.
U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden rejected Couy Griffin's argument that he was not guilty of entering a restricted area protected by the Secret Service because he could not have known of the special protections around the Capitol while then-Vice President Mike Pence was present to preside over the presidential election certification process.
McFadden said Griffin crossed over three walls, needing a help from others to get over them.
“All of this would suggest to a normal person that perhaps you should not be entering the area,” McFadden said following a two-day trial.
Griffin had opted to have a judge, rather than a jury, decide his case.
McFadden's ruling bolsters a key theory from prosecutors in hundreds of riot cases. They argued that the Capitol grounds were strictly off-limits on Jan. 6, 2021, and that should have been apparent to the thousands of Donald Trump supporters who breached them that day in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying Democrat Joe Biden's election win.
McFadden cleared Griffin of a second misdemeanor charge, disorderly conduct, because he never tried to rile up the crowd at the Capitol or engage in violence.
McFadden scheduled a June sentencing hearing for Griffin, who faces up to one year behind bars.
Griffin told reporters outside the courtroom that he was being prosecuted for free speech and that he did not think a jail sentence would be appropriate.
“One year would be a long time to spend in jail,” Griffin said. “I hope that I don't.”
Before the mob stormed the Capitol, Trump gave a fiery speech in which he falsely claimed his election defeat was the result of widespread fraud, an assertion rejected by multiple courts, state election officials and members of his own administration.
About 800 people face criminal charges relating to the riot, which sent Pence and members of Congress running for their lives. Some 200 have already pleaded guilty.
Griffin's bench trial is seen as an important test case as the Justice Department attempts to secure convictions of the hundreds of defendants who have not taken plea deals.
The first jury trial for a Jan. 6 defendant ended in a decisive victory for prosecutors earlier this month. After a quick deliberation, a jury unanimously found a Texas man guilty on all five of the felony charges he faced, including bringing a gun onto the Capitol grounds and obstructing an official proceeding.
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Berkrot)