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Federal Trial Set to Start for Man Charged With Assaulting Paul Pelosi. What You Need to Know

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A view from above of a street with police cars parked outside a house.
In an aerial view, San Francisco police officers and FBI agents gather in front of the home of US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), whose husband, Paul Pelosi, was violently attacked in their home by an intruder, on Oct. 28, 2022, in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

American-grown extremism could take center stage at a federal trial in San Francisco starting this week.

David DePape, 43, faces charges of attempted kidnapping of a federal official — former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — and assault on the immediate family member of a federal official — her husband, Paul Pelosi. DePape could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.

Jury selection in the trial starts this week, with opening statements scheduled for Nov. 9.

But arguments during the trial may go beyond the straightforward legal debate of whether DePape is guilty of bludgeoning Paul Pelosi with a hammer in his San Francisco home last year as part of a plot to kidnap Nancy Pelosi and other left-leaning public figures.

DePape’s alleged act of political violence last year followed a steady drumbeat of villainization against Pelosi in national right-wing media, and there are concerns that the suspect, who appears to have been motivated by his belief in far-right conspiracy theories, could turn the witness stand into a pulpit to evangelize his beliefs.

DePape’s attorneys, who are federal public defenders, have attempted to keep their courtroom strategy a secret. However, according to pretrial motions, they do not intend to argue insanity. There’s even a chance DePape may take the stand.

The damning evidence against DePape includes surveillance video of him breaking into the Pelosi home and police body-camera video of him attacking Paul Pelosi with a hammer. After his arrest, DePape told officers he intended to kidnap Nancy Pelosi, the first among the several public figures he planned to target. Police found zip ties, a roll of duct tape, rope and gloves in his backpack.

‘Message of extremism’

But DePape and his legal team may not care about winning a not-guilty verdict, Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson told KQED.

“His greatest goal may be to spread his message of extremism,” she said.

The trial comes at a potential cost to at least one secret witness, another of DePape’s alleged targets whose safety could be at risk if asked to testify, the witness’s attorney has argued.

U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley ruled recently that an unnamed person, referred to in court documents as “Target 1,” could be compelled to testify. Target 1 is identified in a federal indictment as a high priority on DePape’s list of targets — the person whom he allegedly sought to lure by first taking Nancy Pelosi hostage.

In San Francisco Superior Court last year, a San Francisco police lieutenant said DePape’s target list included Gov. Gavin Newsom, Hunter Biden (President Joe Biden’s son), actor Tom Hanks and sex and gender-theory academic Gayle Rubin.

Corley also permitted federal prosecutors to use audio of a Jan. 27 phone call DePape made from his jail cell to a local TV news reporter. During the call, DePape apologized for failing in his alleged plans to target government officials.

“The tree of liberty needs watering,” he said. “We need men of valor, patriots willing to put their own lives on the line to stand in opposition to tyranny.”

That message has a receptive audience in an ever-growing community of conspiracy theorists, said Rachel Goldwasser, an analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center. DePape’s trial, she said, could galvanize people already sympathetic to QAnon and similar anti-government perspectives.

“I think the biggest fear is that people who are following it with a conspiratorial view become angrier and even more hostile toward Nancy Pelosi, her family and other politicians as well,” Goldwasser said. “The threats have gone up quite a lot in the last few years, and it doesn’t look like they’re going to reduce any time soon.”

Radicalized in recent years

DePape didn’t always traffic in conspiracy theories.

His one-time girlfriend, the nudist Gypsy Taub, who recently served time for attempting to abduct a minor, told the San Francisco Chronicle that DePape “didn’t know anything about politics” when they met in Hawaii in 2000. Only later did a combination of mental illness and drug use cause him to lose grip on reality, she said.

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Years later, DePape, a Canadian-born carpenter living in the East Bay city of Richmond, published blog posts trafficking in QAnon conspiracy theories, railing against space aliens, communists, religious minorities and transgender people.

In a statement to police after he was arrested, DePape characterized Nancy Pelosi as the “leader of the pack” telling Democratic Party lies.

DePape is accused of breaking into the Pelosi’s Pacific Heights home in San Francisco at around 2 a.m. on Oct. 28, 2022. The federal indictment recounts key events: He smashed through their glass side door with a hammer, woke Paul Pelosi from bed and told him he was looking for Nancy Pelosi. Paul Pelosi got hold of a cell phone in his bathroom and managed to signal for help by calling 911.

By 2:31 a.m., a pair of police officers arrived, their body cameras recording as they knocked on the door. Paul Pelosi and DePape answered the door, both of them with one hand on a hammer. When an officer ordered DePape to “drop the hammer,” he said, “Um nope,” pulled his hammer back and swung at Pelosi’s head.

Paul Pelosi underwent surgery to repair a skull fracture along with medical treatment for severe injuries to his hand when he tried to block the hammer blow. Nancy Pelosi told KQED during a live interview last month that her husband is still recovering, and he may be fully healed by the end of this year.

Judge considers allowing key evidence

Prosecutors and defense attorneys have sparred in pretrial motions over what evidence will be shown to the jury, including a January in-custody phone call from DePape to KTVU reporter Amber Lee and photos and video showing a bloodied Paul Pelosi.

In that call, DePape said, “I want to apologize to everyone. I messed up. What I did was really bad. I’m so sorry I didn’t get more of them. It’s my own fault. No one else is to blame. I should have come better prepared.”

He added, “Liberty isn’t dying, it’s being systematically killed,” and that “people killing it have names and addresses, so I got their names and addresses, so I could pay them a little visit and have a heart-to-heart chat about their bad behavior.” He called for “men of valor, patriots willing to put their own lives on the line to stand in opposition to tyranny.”

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The defense argued in a pretrial motion that the call did not touch on Nancy or Paul Pelosi “or prove any of the necessary elements of the offenses charged.”

They argued that the call would be inflammatory to a jury and unduly sway them through emotion instead of evidence. Corley ultimately ruled that federal prosecutors could present excerpts from the call.

Stanford Law professor Robert Weisberg said the phone call is particularly damning for DePape and a gift to prosecutors.

“Was that gold wrapped as a present to the U.S. government? Was it the government’s birthday? Was it July Fourth?” he said.

DePape’s attorneys have also sought to limit how much video footage of the hammer attack prosecutors are allowed to show the jury.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Vartain Horn told Judge Corley late last month that the video shows Paul Pelosi lying on the floor “in his own blood.”

“It shows a different angle. You hear Mr. Pelosi’s breathing, which is difficult,” Horn said, and it shows emergency personnel attempting to stop his blood flow.

Federal public defender Angela Chuang argued the video is shocking and would wrongly sway the jury.

“It is prejudicial. There’s no question about that. That’s just the nature of what happened,” Corley said in response. “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Mysterious Target 1 to take witness stand

Corley cleared the courtroom when DePape’s attorneys argued at a hearing late last month that subpoenaing the unnamed witness identified in the federal indictment as Target 1 was crucial to the defense.

Corley ruled after the closed-door hearing that Target 1 would testify, a ruling that came over the objections of Target 1’s attorney, Ed Swanson.

Swanson said DePape’s “call to arms” in his phone call to KTVU endangered his client. He said that since she was named as one of DePape’s targets, she was forced to make “fundamental changes” in her family life and professional life to guarantee their safety.

“There are people out there who are particularly worrisome to my client and her employer, who have gone to great lengths to do everything possible to make my client safe,” Swanson argued. “This will make my client less safe.”

Corley apologized to Swanson and his client but said the worry right now is a “generalized concern” instead of a specific one and erred on the side of honoring DePape’s right to a fair trial.

“We get threats just being a judge in a video game case,” Corley said. “It’s a crazy, terrible world.”

The court is aiming to keep Target 1’s name under wraps, though those in attendance will be able to see the person’s face. Corley has said Target 1’s testimony is expected to be public. That could change as further hearings on Target 1 are expected this week.

Levenson, of Loyola Law School, said there may be good reasons to keep Target 1’s identity hidden.

“It may be that DePape is out of commission, but the court has to worry whether he has followers out there who will take up the mantle, the mission for him,” she said.

Legal defense remains a mystery

DePape’s attorneys have noted in an October court filing that they’re trying to avoid “prematurely revealing details of defense trial strategy and theory.”

And that strategy remains a mystery.

Weisberg, from Stanford Law School, said it makes sense that DePape doesn’t plan to argue insanity as a defense as it’s an “incredibly hard” legal bar to clear.

“You have to prove that because of your incapacity, you had no ability to even know what you were doing was wrong,” he said.

The defense’s witness list is brief: one redacted name who may be Target 1, Pelosi’s chief of staff, Daniel Bernal, Elizabeth Yates, an extremism and antisemitism researcher, federal public defender Catherine Goulet and DePape himself.

The prosecutors’ witness list, in contrast, is two pages long, sporting 15 names, most of whom are police officers, federal agents and various emergency responders. Paul Pelosi is also named as a potential witness. Nancy Pelosi is not.

At an October pretrial hearing, Corley shot down the defense bid to ask jurors for their voting histories, calling the move “invasive.”

“It will reduce faith in our system. I’m just not going to allow it,” she said.

Levenson, from Loyola Law School, said finding even one juror who finds conspiracy theories plausible could be key for the defense.

“All they frankly need is one sympathizer, one person who says, ‘I don’t like DePape, but his message is one that I relate to,’” Levenson said. “If that happens, then you might not get the unanimous verdict that the prosecution has to get.”

Levenson cautioned against assuming the case will be an easy win for prosecutors, even in light of what she called “strong evidence” showing DePape’s attack, demonstrating his motivations and communicating his desire to continue his mission even after his arrest.

“Cases that look easy, you have to be careful because jurors will have high expectations,” she said. “In high profile cases, unusual things can happen.”

Correction (Nov. 8): An earlier version of this story listed David DePape’s age as 42 years old. That was his age at the time of his arrest last year. He is now 43.

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