Judge releases New Mexico county official charged in Capitol riot

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A prominent judge in Washington issued a surprise order Friday freeing a New Mexico county official who is charged with breaching police lines during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Otero County Commissioner and Cowboys for Trump founder Couy Griffin, 47, was arrested near the Capitol three days before President Joe Biden’s inauguration and has been in custody since that time.

Last week, a magistrate judge in Washington ordered Griffin detained pending trial, ruling that Griffin’s history of provocative and threatening statements towards Democrats and elected officials signaled that he was unlikely to abide by conditions of release and show up for trial.

However, after a hearing Friday, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell overturned that decision. Howell has made clear her outrage over the Jan. 6 riot and she underscored that sentiment Friday, but she said Griffin’s alleged actions did not place him among the most legally culpable for the riot.

“In contrast to most of the brazen rioters, he was not armed and he left the Capitol grounds peacefully,” Howell said. “He was not a participant in the violent break-in at the Capitol or the marauding mob roaming the halls of the legislative branch of government on Jan. 6, and the charge he now faces reflects that fact.”

Griffin faces a misdemeanor charge of entering a Secret Service-restricted area.

Howell acknowledged that Griffin’s statements — including one declaring “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” — provoked justified anger.

“These are all words that are deeply disturbing, especially when considered in conjunction with the defendant’s decision to return with firearms to D.C. shortly before the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20,” she said.

“His words certainly reflect strong convictions that many in this country would consider unpatriotic, obnoxious, repugnant to the democratic process and certainly harmful to the American body politic, when he’s talking about fellow Americans,” Howell said, pausing for emphasis on the last phrase.

The judge rejected First Amendment claims from Griffin’s lawyers that his statements should not be considered as part of the detention issue, but she said they didn’t mean he was likely to ignore the court’s orders.

Howell also expressed concern that, given trial delays related to the pandemic, Griffin might end up spending more time awaiting trial than he would be sentenced to if found guilty in the case.

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