The way prosecutors see it, Stephen Horn was one of thousands of rioters who breached the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power. He scaled a statue of Abraham Lincoln, stormed then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and joined in at least one chant with the violent mob.
But Horn and his attorneys say Horn was an independent journalist who joined the rioters so he could accurately document what happened. He wasn’t wearing clothing that showed support for President Donald Trump, he didn’t assault law enforcement officers and he, at one point, warned against breaking any objects in Pelosi’s office.
“You are being asked to decide: Press or protest?” Horn’s attorney, Marshall Hood Ellis, instructed the jury in the federal courthouse in Washington at the end of a two-day trial.
On Monday, after just a few hours of deliberation, the jury went with “protest.” Horn was convicted of four misdemeanor counts, including disorderly conduct in the Capitol and parading or demonstrating within the Capitol building.
He is one of 1,061 defendants charged with entering or remaining in a restricted federal building or grounds on Jan. 6.
Every Jan. 6 defendant that has gone in front of a jury has been found guilty of at least a misdemeanor, although a small number have been acquitted of felony counts.
Judge Timothy J. Kelly scheduled Horn’s sentencing for January. He faces up to a year in prison on the most serious charge.
At trial, Horn’s attorney attempted to portray his client as an independent journalist, traveling from North Carolina to the nation’s capital on an overnight bus with other protesters to report on a Trump rally in support of his false claim that he won the 2020 election. Horn wasn’t affiliated with a news outlet and didn’t have a large following on social media. Still, Horn and his attorney said his intent to disseminate the recordings he took on Jan. 6 made him a journalist that day.
Horn didn’t get paid for his video, but he posted it online soon after he left D.C. On the witness stand, he said he gave the footage to the FBI to help agents identify people who attacked law enforcement and destroyed property.
“I did not want to gatekeep it with money,” Horn told jurors.
He said he was interested in conservative politics, but never supported Trump and did not believe he was suitable to be president.
Both sides dissected the two-hour video that Horn recorded from the Capitol. Horn and his attorneys used it to differentiate him from other rioters, emphasizing that Horn wasn’t aggressive to law enforcement and didn’t appear to destroy any property.
They said he didn’t participate in any “stop the steal” chants, which suggested the election was stolen, and only definitively participated in one “USA” chant to blend in, because he feared that the rioters would attack him if they suspected he was a journalist.
“I was not thinking about political issues or grievances, I was thinking about: ‘How do I record this thing and stay safe?'” Horn said on the stand last week.
But prosecutors used that same video to portray Horn as another person in the violent mob who knowingly trespassed onto government property. They convinced the jury that Horn did not act like other journalists that day. He scarcely asked questions of people, they said. And while he had a camera on his helmet that he kept running for two hours, it was often pointed away from the action.
Prosecutors also focused on Horn’s Facebook activity, highlighting that he had previously RSVP’d online to conservative protests in North Carolina and joined groups that supported the theory that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
Horn works for his family’s software company. Prosecutors said he only focused on journalistic pursuits after the Capitol riot.
“His journalism started when he needed an excuse for his criminal liability,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ashley Akers said.
Federal investigators discovered that Horn was at the Capitol on Jan. 11, five days after the riot, when the New York Times Magazine social media account posted a photo of him dressed in black, standing on an Abraham Lincoln statue above the other rioters in the rotunda.
Two tipsters identified Horn to investigators. He sat for interviews with the FBI and was indicted in March.
Ellis, Horn’s attorney, said they were disappointed in the verdict, but knew it was “going to be an uphill battle from the start.”
“Mr. Horn felt strongly about telling his story to a D.C. jury,” Ellis said in an interview. “It doesn’t look like they believed that story, unfortunately. But he wanted to tell that story and we did our best to tell it – I firmly believe that his story is true.”
(c) 2023, The Washington Post · Perry Stein