WASHINGTON, D.C. (WGHP) – The case against former High Point police officer Laura Steele will be heard by a jury of her peers, and that trial will start on Thursday.
U.S. District Court Judge Ahmit P. Meta on Wednesday denied a motion for a bench trial for Steele, a Thomasville resident, a member of the right-wing militia group the Oath Keepers and one of the Piedmont Triad’s most prominent defendants in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Steele faces six counts listed in an eighth superseding indictment filed in June against a group of eight who are alleged to have assisted Elmer Stewart Rhodes III, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, in planning to disrupt that lawful transfer of power in Washington.
Rhodes and Kelly Meggs in November were found guilty of seditious conspiracy in helping to organize supporters of former President Donald Trump to overturn the lawful election of President Joe Biden in November 2020. Three other defendants were found guilty of related felony charges.
Mehta said that a bench trial – in which the judge alone would decide a case – is “neither warranted nor justified,” and he ordered that jury selection to begin at 1 p.m. Thursday for Steele and six of her codefendants, Sandra Ruth Parker, Bennie Alvin Parker, Connie Meggs, William Isaacs and Michael L. Greene.
He cited the same ruling that was entered in a last-minute request for a bench trial by Kelly Meggs on Oct. 3, just before his trial with Rhodes commenced, and Mehta listed previous court decisions as the foundation for that ruling.
“Trial by jury is the constitutional norm, and the nature, gravity, and public interest in Ms. Steele’s case weigh heavily against a bench trial,” Mehta wrote in his ruling. “Additionally, a bench trial for Ms. Steele, while her five co-defendants are tried by a jury, would create a substantial risk of juror confusion and potential prejudice for other defendants.
“Ms. Steele’s concern about the capacity of a District of Columbia jury pool to view the evidence fairly and objectively is flatly contradicted by the juries’ decisions in the prior Rhodes trials, in which the juries returned mixed verdicts as to nearly every defendant.
“The court is confident that a rigorous voir dire will produce an equally fair and impartial jury in this case.”
Mehta already had said that a trial of seven original defendants would be a logistical challenge because of all the attorneys, equipment and other resources needed for trial. He had told all attorneys to be ready for Feb. 1.
Militia groups involved
Steele is one of more than 1,100 members of Oath Keepers in North Carolina – including at least two state legislators – and there also are the Proud Boys, another group of right-wing extremists. One of that group’s state leaders, Charles Donohoe of Kernersville, pleaded guilty to charges earlier this year and agreed to testify in the sedition trial of Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarriom which is underway in Washington.
They are among more than 950 people in 48 states who have been charged with crimes for their roles during the insurrection, based on a database maintained by USA TODAY. More than 550 have pleaded guilty or been convicted, and some 350 have been sentenced, more than half to jail time.
There are 25 of them from North Carolina, and Steele is one of six residents of the Piedmont Triad. Another NC defendant, Johnny Harris of Shelby, is scheduled for a bench trial later this month.
This is all because thousands of Trump’s supporters broke through windows and doors, stormed past barricades and drove members of Congress into hiding in a violent bid to keep Trump in power.
There were hundreds of injuries to law enforcement officers, much destruction of property, threats on the life of Vice President Mike Pence and others, and, ultimately, seven lives were lost during or after the insurrection. There also have been all those legal proceedings.
The House Select Committee referred four criminal charges against Trump, and the Department of Justice is investigating. A special counsel also has been appointed to oversee several investigations involving Trump.
The Steele case
Latest indictment by Steven Doyle on Scribd
Steele is named in seven of nine counts – up from eight – in the 35 pages of the latest indictment, which describe how Rhodes and certain regional leaders recruited members, including Steele, to travel to Washington. They are alleged to have worn paramilitary clothing and Oath Keepers identification as they overpowered guards and invaded the Capitol through the doors to the rotunda, court documents say.
Steele’s brother, Graydon Young of Englewood, Florida, is among several named in the document but not indicted. Steele is the only defendant in the eighth charge, which describes how she and Young on Jan. 7 allegedly used a backyard burn pit to destroy evidence of the attack, including their clothing.
He pleaded guilty to two counts against him, including conspiracy, and was the first Oath Keeper to do so. His plea and agreement to testify against Rhodes spared him a potential 30 years in prison. During the trial of Rhodes in October, he broke into sobs on the stand and apologized.
Mehta earlier had been somewhat lenient in granting relief for Steele while she awaited her court date. Steele in March 2021 had been ordered to home confinement with GPS monitoring, but in September the court removed that confinement but required her to meet curfew from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m.