Brendan Hunt struggled as an actor in New York City when he discovered another way to get famous.
He started making conspiracy videos about the 9/11 attacks and other mass murders in order to build audiences over many years. He posted anti-Semitic propaganda and branded himself a warrior of free speech. He eventually became a fan of President Donald J. Trump.
But during the pandemic, Mr. Hunt’s tone escalated. The turning point came on January 8, two days after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, when Mr. Hunt posted a video calling for Mr. Trump’s supporters to kill Democratic politicians. A bystander notified the FBI and Mr. Hunt was arrested in January.
On Wednesday, after a weeklong trial in Brooklyn, a jury concluded that Mr. Hunt’s words were not protected by the first amendment. He was found guilty of threatening the murder of members of Congress, a federal crime with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Although Mr. Hunt did not travel to Washington on the day of the Capitol Uprising, his trial was the first in the country where the jury had to weigh the events of January 6 in its verdict. The jury viewed footage of the attack and heard testimony from a Capitol police officer.
Mr. Hunt’s rhetoric, prosecutors said, had to be seen in the context of the Capitol uprising.
“Many watched the video clips from the Capitol in horror, but the defendant loved it,” said Ian Richardson, a US assistant attorney, in his closing statement. “He was watching the events of January 6th and wanted more, more violence, more bloodshed.”
Hunt’s lawyers Jan Rostal and Leticia Olivera argued in court that all of his statements were strongly worded political opinions, not specific and targeted threats.
People like Mr. Hunt have long faced the challenge of law enforcement officers scouring violent threats online to determine which ones are worthy of prosecution and which are a protected language. Mr. Hunt was arrested on January 19, the day before President Biden’s inauguration, a signal that FBI agents were reluctant to wait to see what he might have done that day.
The process revolved around four social media posts Mr Hunt had made as of December. Angry with the 2020 election result, he called for prominent Democrats to be slaughtered and beheaded before Mr Biden’s inauguration. Mr. Hunt highlighted Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Senator Chuck Schumer and Spokesperson Nancy Pelosi as “high value targets”.
“We are not voting on another rigged election,” he wrote on Facebook in December. “Start the firing squads, mow down those clerks and let’s take America back!”
In a January 8 video on BitChute, a video sharing website, he said, “If someone has a gun, give it to me. I’ll go there myself and shoot them and kill them. “
On Wednesday’s verdict, the jury said they saw the video as an illegal threat, but not the three other Facebook and Parler posts that prosecutors had also submitted. The jury had only to conclude that one of the positions posed a real threat to Mr Hunt’s conviction.
Mr. Hunt, a former New York State court system clerk and the son of a retired Queens judge, posted the posts from his home in Ridgewood, Queens, about a 20-minute drive from Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s county office. The government did not provide evidence that Mr. Hunt owned or took real steps to obtain weapons.
The jury came to its verdict after three hours of deliberation. Mr. Hunt’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.
The culmination of the trial was Mr. Hunt’s highly unusual decision to testify in his own defense – a risky maneuver that allowed him to share his side of the story, but also meant that prosecutors question him about his anti-Semitic and white supremacist beliefs could.
Before commenting, Judge Pamela K. Chen of the Brooklyn District Court repeatedly asked him if he was sure of the decision.
During Mr. Hunt’s testimony, he apologized for his posts and accepted full responsibility, but insisted that he did not intend them to pose serious threats. He described himself as “a fairly immature 37-year-old”. He wore a gray suit, blue tie, and clear plastic face mask, looked relaxed and spoke casually.
“The idea that I was kind of borrowing someone’s gun, like dipping a Looney Tunes character into Biden’s dedication ceremony, and sort of putting all the senators up and putting them to death, I think is a pretty ridiculous idea,” he said.
He’s been in jail since his arrest, which made him realize how irresponsible his social media posts were and how he “needs to readjust what I think is humorous.”
“I’m something of a YouTube guy who does controversial content and clickbait videos,” he said.
However, the verdict showed that the jury sided with prosecutors, who argued the posts were not poorly worded jokes.
Prosecutors brought evidence that Mr. Hunt repeatedly posted threatening language against members of Congress, motivated by his anti-Semitic belief that the government was controlled by a Jewish conspiracy. He created a video that was never posted online in which he talked about killing Jewish people.
Mr Hunt was quick to resort to violent threats, prosecutors said. In December, after his cousin befriended him on Facebook, Mr. Hunt texted the cousin threatening to stab his child with a knife.
Mr. Hunt has been charged with an illegal threat. He was not accused of instigating violence. The prosecutors did not have to prove that he intended to carry out the threat, nor that the members of Congress even received the threat.
Prosecutors had to show that a “reasonable person” saw the messages as a real threat and that Mr. Hunt had made the threats with the intention of disrupting their work or taking revenge on members of Congress.
Daniel Bonthius, law enforcement coordinator for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s office, testified in court that he was concerned that Mr. Hunt was speaking so calmly and did not appear to be mentally ill in his January 8 video. Mr Bonthius said he was concerned for the safety of his employees when Mr Hunt’s Facebook post about a “public execution” brought back memories of the Capitol riot.
The court testimony became a time capsule of world changing events in 2020. Mr Hunt stated that during the pandemic he was working increasingly lonely from home, drinking marijuana and smoking to cope with isolation. He listened to the news all day and was furious about government lockdowns and masked mandates.
He visited a neo-Nazi website and read Adolf Hitler’s book Mein Kampf. Two days after the 2020 election, he downloaded the manifesto of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine black churchgoers in South Carolina in 2015.
Mr. Hunt testified that he simply wanted to know more about mass murderers and did not support their beliefs.
“Are you a Nazi?” his lawyer asked him. He replied, “No. I’m not a nazi. I hate Nazis, ”indicating that he owned comics written by Jewish men.
After he posted his video on Jan. 8 asking people to kill their senators, right-wing commentators called him an “idiot” and asked if he was mad. One person wrote, “Great way to put a target on their back and get arrested soon.” Humiliated, he deleted the video the next day.
But it was too late. Among the 502 people who viewed the video was the one who called the FBI helpline. Agents opened an investigation and followed Mr. Hunt for over a week.
On the day Mr. Hunt was arrested, 17 police officers came to his home looking for bombs and weapons. Instead, his lawyers said, officers found a lot of comics, toys, and a ninja turtle sweater.
Mr. Hunt testified that after his release from prison he hoped to continue making videos.
“I think maybe I should stay away from political matters or offensive material,” he said. “Maybe check out comics, check out movies. Things like this. “