Lawyers haven’t exactly been flocking to defend Trump voters charged in the Capitol riot. It’s an unpopular cause, and likely to lead to an attorney being shunned by colleagues or worse, and the defendants for the most part can’t afford to pay legal fees.
But Joseph McBride is one of the heroic few attorneys who has stood up in the name of equal justice for the most reviled people in the nation. As a former Manhattan public defender, it’s what he always has done.
McBride’s client today is the most reviled of the reviled: Richard “Bigo” Barnett, 60, the window installer from Arkansas who put his feet up on a desk in Nancy Pelosi’s office and has come to symbolize the “insurrection” that wasn’t.
“I made my bones at Manhattan Legal Aid and the Innocence Project,” says McBride.
“None of my colleagues from those places have supported my representing Bigo in any way. This is because . . . they fear being canceled by their own group more than anything.”
After Barnett spent almost four months in solitary confinement without trial in a DC jail, McBride managed to secure his pretrial release. He is back home now under house arrest in Gravette, Ark., and must do battle with an adversary with infinite resources and a vested interest in maintaining the fiction that the Capitol Hill riot was an insurrection.
Not one of 510 people arrested over the Capitol riot has been charged with insurrection, says McBride.
He spoke up in court about the inhumanity of jail conditions endured by his client and other January Sixers. He called it “torture,” and said they were “political prisoners.”
“The guards want to hurt them, and . . . feel like they have a green light from the government to do whatever they like.”
Barnett complained that he was bashed by guards. He blew the whistle on physical abuse of other inmates, including one beaten so badly he went blind in one eye and started to suffer seizures, an incident the FBI reportedly is investigating. Barnett said the man’s face looked like “chopped meat.”
No one deserves that, no matter how heinous their crime.
For McBride, 43, preventing such injustices has been his life’s work. It’s why he became an attorney.
He was raised in Brooklyn in the violent 1980s and ’90s. “I was lucky to have two good Catholic God-fearing parents . . . but everybody I grew up with with — except for a handful — is dead or in jail.”
His Irish father was from Flatbush and worked at Con Edison, and his mom was Puerto Rican, from Spanish Harlem. They fostered about 20 children, “the most damaged ones,” and ended up adopting a mentally disabled 6-year-old boy who had been born addicted to heroin.
McBride saw his vulnerable adopted brother railroaded by the justice system, threatened into pleading guilty and spending 10 years in jail for a crime McBride said he didn’t commit.
“It changed my world. I dropped everything to become a lawyer . . . to try to get him out.”
By the time he graduated, his brother had been released, a broken man. But McBride vowed to beat a rigged system, working for six years as a legal aid attorney in Manhattan, defending mainly black and Hispanic defendants. More than 98 percent of people charged with a felony in New York City at that time pleaded guilty, and never went to trial, because they knew they couldn’t win, a sure sign the system is rigged, he says.
“I learned when defending people who weren’t able to afford representation that the rules of the game were changed to disadvantage them . . . They were threatened with jail sentences so large they could take a plea for five years or risk going to jail for 50. Defendants made an informed decision that ‘this isn’t going to work out for me.’ ”
That’s what happened to his brother and it’s what he sees happening to the January Sixers.
In Barnett’s case, prosecutors offered seven years in jail in exchange for a guilty plea, which Barnett rejected.
The charges he faces include obstructing Congress, entering the Capitol while armed with a stun gun and stealing an envelope, which could see him jailed for more than 10 years if convicted.
On the charge of possessing a “deadly weapon,” McBride says the stun gun, which doubled as a flashlight and walking cane, was “disarmed” because there were no batteries in it.
Barnett had been with friends in a DC bar the previous evening showing off the new gadget and had worn out the batteries, which he threw in the trash. He never replaced them before going into the Capitol, as evidenced, says McBride, by the fact that a white indicator light, which should be visible on the device if it is charged, was absent from every photo of his client taken that day.
Barnett maintains he was pushed inside the Capitol in the second wave of protesters well after the initial violent breach.
He went into Pelosi’s office through an open door looking for a bathroom because Mayor Muriel Bowser had ordered all Porta Potties removed from DC.
An AFP photographer asked him to pose at the desk, which he stupidly did. A cut on his finger bled on an envelope, so he left a quarter to pay for it, and a rude note for Pelosi.
No one condones Barnett’s actions that day.
But he committed no violence and seven years in jail is disproportionate punishment in any language.
The FBI circulated a notice labeling him a “Tier One” terrorist — the worst category.
How then should we describe someone who kills thousands of people by flying a plane into a building or plants a bomb at the Boston Marathon?
Last summer’s rioters were treated with kid gloves, although more than two dozen people were killed.
The terrorism label is just used to dehumanize Barnett and his ilk and make it acceptable to shun them and everyone associated with them.
“Before I took this case I counted the cost,” says McBride. “I knew it would be difficult and that I would make enemies. That is OK. I know deep in my soul that we are on the right side.”
Bravo to a good man.