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Federal trial begins for David DePape, who's accused of attacking Paul Pelosi

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The federal criminal trial of David DePape got underway this week in San Francisco. He's charged with breaking into the home of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last year with the intention to kidnap her and accused of bludgeoning her husband, Paul Pelosi, with a hammer. If found guilty, DePape may face life in prison. KQED's Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez has been following all this and joins us now. Good morning.

JOE FITZGERALD RODRIGUEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, Joe, you were in court yesterday for opening arguments. What case did prosecutors present against DePape?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, yeah, the prosecutors laid out a mountain of evidence, going play-by-play through DePape's actions that night a year ago. They showed how he had planned the attack for more than a week, even paying for a subscription service to help obtain Nancy Pelosi's home address. They played video evidence showing him swinging his hammer more than a dozen times at the Pelosis' side glass door, then crawling through it. And police witnesses walked us through how we snuck upstairs, woke up Paul Pelosi and later struck him with a hammer, fracturing his skull. They showed pretty disturbing photographs of Pelosi lying in a pool of blood.

FADEL: Wow. I mean, you're describing a mountain of evidence - video evidence, a subscription service. I mean, what's the defense to this?

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, I mean, going into this, the defense said they wouldn't argue insanity, but they kept their strategy under tight wraps until yesterday. That's part of why federal public defender Jodi Linker's opening statements had many folks in the court slack-jawed. She started by forcefully stating conspiracy theories DePape believed, including ones about Nancy Pelosi stealing the last presidential election, which, of course is not true. Then she pivoted and told the jury, look - we don't believe that. You may think that's all crazy, but DePape believes it. It was belief in these conspiracy theories that motivated him to act in the way he did. And what he believed is important because the federal charges aren't just about whether or not he attacked someone or tried to kidnap them. They're about whether or not he did these things in retaliation against Nancy Pelosi for performing her duties as a federal officer. He does still face state charges, though, where his motivations won't be key, just whether or not he did it.

FADEL: Now, there's a wider context here. I mean, what, Joe, DePape believes, these fringe conspiracy theories - I mean, they're less and less fringe, more and more people believing them, more concerns about those beliefs fueling violence. What are experts saying about that?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, right. There are a lot of people who believe in conspiracy theories, from QAnon to election theft. And sometimes those are spilling over into the real world, from the January 6 insurrection to bombarding poll workers with death threats or threatening elected officials. Wyatt Russell, a policy analyst with American University's extremism research group PERIL, told me much of that recent uptick in threats and violence is driven by right-wing misinformation and extremism.

WYATT RUSSELL: We're really in a national crisis right now, you know, with rampant propaganda and mis- and dis- and malinformation, harmful online content and, more broadly, extremism and white supremacist extremism as we move forward here in this country.

RODRIGUEZ: And an expert I spoke to at the Southern Poverty Law Center said they expect harassment and potentially even violence linked to conspiracy theories to spike as we move closer to the 2024 presidential election.

FADEL: So do we expect the Pelosis to testify here?

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, Nancy Pelosi likely won't take the stand. She isn't in any of the witness lists. But both Paul Pelosi and David DePape are on the witness list, so we might be hearing from both of them in the coming days.

FADEL: Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez with member station KQED. Joe, thanks.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALFA MIST'S "FIRST LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez