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DePape's Motivation for Trying to Kidnap Nancy Pelosi Is Key, Defense Says in Closing Argument

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A watercolor sketch of a woman standing in front of a lectern in a courtroom with a female judge behind her.
Federal Public Defender Angela Chuang (left) delivers the closing argument for the defense in the trial of David DePape, in San Francisco on Nov. 15, 2023. (Vicki Behringer for KQED)

Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys made closing arguments Wednesday in the trial of David DePape, the man facing life in prison for attempting to kidnap former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and assaulting her husband, Paul Pelosi, last year.

The jury began deliberating late Wednesday morning.

The four-day trial in a San Francisco courtroom focused on DePape’s failed plan to kidnap Nancy Pelosi by breaking into her San Francisco home early in the morning on Oct. 28, 2022. He found the former speaker of the House was not home, which he said was not part of his plan. He held Paul Pelosi hostage until police officers arrived, then bludgeoned him in the head with a hammer in front of them.

“It was not a very well-thought-out plan,” DePape’s attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Angela Chuang, told the jury in her closing argument.

DePape’s defense attorneys do not dispute that he hit Paul Pelosi with a hammer or that he planned to capture Nancy Pelosi. Rather, the defense argued that he was motivated by outlandish conspiracy theories, not Pelosi’s official position at the time as House speaker.

That’s a key distinction in considering both federal charges against DePape, which require that the suspect had the “intent to impede, intimidate, or interfere” with a federal official’s duties or “on account of” those duties.

That strategy echoes ones used by attorneys defending Jan. 6, 2021 insurrectionists earlier this year, including arguments that focused on defendants’ conspiratorial leanings and portrayed them as unaware of the “official duties” of their targets. Those tactics have reportedly largely been unsuccessful, although at least one Jan. 6 defendant did face lesser charges after making such an argument.

A watercolor sketch of a woman standing at a lectern in a courtroom, speaking to a faceless jury, with a judge observing.
Displaying a photo of Paul Pelosi lying in a pool of his own blood, Assistant U.S. Attorney Helen Gilbert delivers the prosecution’s closing argument to the jury in the case against David DePape on Wednesday. (Vicki Behringer for KQED)

“The ‘why’ matters here,” Chuang said. “This case isn’t about whether they proved beyond a reasonable doubt if Mr. DePape went to the Pelosi’s home that night and hit Mr. Pelosi on the head with a hammer. Of course, he did.”

Throughout the case — including during DePape’s testimony on Tuesday — the defense attempted to demonstrate that he targeted Nancy Pelosi for her politics, not for her congressional duties.

But during the prosecution’s closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Helen Gilbert dismissed that argument as a “made-up distinction.”

Prosecutors spent much of the trial breaking down the savage hammer attack that, in real-time, lasted only moments. Police witnesses, photographs, slow-motion video, and testimony from Paul Pelosi himself highlighted the brazenness of DePape’s entry into the Pelosi home, in which he struck a glass door with his hammer more than a dozen times, and emphasized the shocking way in which he ultimately wielded that hammer to fracture Paul Pelosi’s skull.

More DePape trial coverage

The images of Paul Pelosi’s injuries were particularly horrific. The front half of his skull appeared flattened in one photo, and in another, his face and hands were bathed in blood.

But Chuang, the federal defender, on Wednesday, urged the jury not to be distracted by those images.

“It was awful and horrible,” she said, but “the government wants you to be so appalled by what happened that you will be swayed on this case. They want you to be so moved by the blood and the violence, and you won’t think about the charges.”

Shocking the jurors, however, wasn’t the prosecution’s only strategy.

Prosecutors also highlighted DePape’s “grand plan,” as he called it, in great detail. The jury saw photographs of the small Richmond garage he called home, summaries of the research he conducted into accessing the Pelosi residence and the homes of other targets in his web history, a catalog of those targets’ addresses on his hard drive, and surveillance footage of his late-night, two-and-a-half hour BART and Muni trips that brought him to the Pelosi’s Pacific Heights neighborhood.

The prosecution highlighted how DePape, in a recorded interview with police after his arrest, infamously called Nancy Pelosi the “leader of the pack” among those telling Democratic lies, and how he kept his research on Pelosi in a folder on his computer labeled “favorite politicians.”

Gilbert, the U.S. attorney, told jurors that it was telling when DePape admitted to police investigators that his plan involved donning an inflatable unicorn costume, interrogating Nancy Pelosi on video, then breaking her kneecaps and wheeling her out onto the floor of Congress.

“He didn’t say he’d wheel her out to the [Democratic National Committee],” she said. “No, he said ‘Congress.’ We didn’t put those words in his mouth. He said that on the day he did this.”

U.S. District Judge Jacquline Scott Corley indicated in hearings on Tuesday, while the jury was not present that there are various scenarios in which the federal charges against DePape would not apply. One hypothetical she raised involved someone assaulting a federal official in a fit of road rage.

The prosecution agreed that the charges against DePape would “absolutely not” be appropriate in that example. But in her closing argument on Wednesday, Gilbert said the charges absolutely apply in this case because of DePape’s own statements about his intent.

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“This is the center of the ‘evil’ and of the lies and corruption the defendant is talking about,” Gilbert argued. “He tells you: It’s Congress.”

Gilbert relied heavily on DePape’s statements to speak for themselves.

It was “right in front of cops, too,” DePape said to a paramedic on a recording from the night of the attack that Gilbert played for the jury.

“Cops watched me do it. You guys need evidence? There’s no denying what I did. The cops watched me do it,” he said on the recording.

Regardless of the outcome in federal court, San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins’ office confirmed that DePape will still face state charges of attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, elder abuse, residential burglary, false imprisonment, and threatening the life or serious bodily harm to a public official, which collectively could carry a sentence of life in prison.

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