The U.S. Capitol riot launched one of the largest investigations in Justice Department history, with hundreds of defendants now facing charges. But the lawyer who’s put himself at the center of nearly 20 of the legal defenses has plenty of problems of his own—from a bizarre legal strategy and looming debts to a struggling case defending a handful of chimpanzees.
Once a high-flying civil attorney, lawyer John Pierce has reinvented himself, in the face of mountains of debt, as a go-to lawyer for conservative causes célèbres. After being fired from representing accused Kenosha, Wisconsin, murder suspect Kyle Rittenhouse over a financial dispute, Pierce has become perhaps the most public legal face of the Jan. 6 defense, representing more than a dozen clients as he tries out unorthodox legal strategies and jousts with his critics on Twitter.
But even as his star rises on the right, Pierce has been undermined by a bizarre tweet appearing to threaten federal officials, an employee facing felony charges for allegedly defrauding a grandmother, and his own financial woes.
Pierce declined to comment.
Pierce now represents at least 17 of the Jan. 6 defendants, more than any other lawyer. His clients include Proud Boy William Pepe and L. Brent Bozell IV, the son of conservative media commentator L. Brent Bozell III. Pierce also represents Ryan Samsel, an accused rioter identified by prosecutors as the man caught on video consulting with a top Proud Boy leader before attacking police officers in the riot’s first minutes.
“We are going to take every one of these cases to trial, we are going to seek full acquittals, and in that process we are going to find out what actually happened on Jan. 6,” Pierce said at a June rally in support of the riot defendants.
In one court hearing, Pierce said he would pursue a “public authority defense”—an unusual legal tactic sometimes used by informants that would see him argue that his clients believed that the government, in the form of Donald Trump, had legally sanctioned their law-breaking.
Marcy Wheeler, a national security journalist who has reported on Pierce’s court filings, suspects that Pierce is gathering so many Jan. 6 clients together to tell a story in court about “romantic patriots who are trying to save the country.” But Pierce’s ambitious legal strategy could be undermined by the fact that he has no substantial experience as a criminal defense attorney—an issue that also came up in his short term representing Rittenhouse.
“He’s not a defense attorney, and therefore he’s not an especially good defense attorney and it would take a tremendously good defense attorney to make a good public authority defense,” Wheeler said. “That’s why nobody else is trying it.”
At times, Pierce’s Twitter rhetoric can sound as overheated as some of the Jan. 6 rioters. On July 16, as debates about the door-to-door vaccination campaigns raged on the right, Pierce tweeted that a federal employee knocking on your door called for “various calibers”—an apparent reference to shooting them.
“Every instance of an unconstitutional federal knock on your door, or that of a UN blue helmet, should be met with one thing,” Pierce tweeted. “Of various calibers.”
Before his turn as one of a top lawyer for Trump supporters in legal trouble, Pierce ran an up-and-coming law firm. But his firm dissolved amid his personal problems, including a more than $800,000 tax debt to the IRS and what he’s described as substance abuse issues.
Pierce declined to comment on the meaning of his tweet. The Daily Mail has reported that Pierce once sent his ex-wife menacing messages and allegedly threatened to kill her.
To support his conservative legal causes, Pierce set up his would-be rival to the American Civil Liberties Union in June, dubbing it the National Constitutional Law Union. But his new group has already been touched by scandal.
On Thursday, Law360 reported that the NCLU’s chief financial officer, Ryan Joseph-Gene Marshall, is facing a raft of felony charges for attempting to defraud an elderly woman while working as a court clerk.
Marshall allegedly convinced a judge to sign a bogus guardianship order, which in turn helped one of Marshall’s court colleagues steal $86,000 from the woman, according to court filings. Pierce, who plans to make Marshall an associate in his fledgling firm, is representing Marshall in the case.
Despite the responsibilities of representing almost 20 Capitol riot defendants, Pierce has also signed on for another case: a fight over whether a Missouri woman must hand over her chimps to a wildlife sanctuary group after agreeing to surrender them in deal with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The chimp case has become an unlikely cause in certain corners of the right thanks to The Gateway Pundit, a popular right-wing blog that often promotes hoaxes. While the private ownership of chimps is not typically a major issue for Trump supporters, one of the blog’s writers, who plans to own a monkey herself, has begun covering the case closely.
Earlier this month, Pierce signed onto the case. But his efforts to keep the chimps in their home have thus far been in vain, with a federal appeals court rejecting his motion for an emergency stay. Pierce has had similarly bad luck at the Supreme Court, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh rejecting his motion for a stay on Wednesday.
While Pierce has continued to amass Jan. 6 defendants, it seems that at least one may be looking for different representation. On Wednesday, Pierce client and riot defendant Ryan Samsel, who has gained prominence amid the many Jan. 6 defendants after claiming he was attacked by guards in jail, contacted the judge in his case and said he would be getting a new lawyer.
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