Paul Pelosi hammer attack trial: What we’ve learned as David DePape case enters final arguments

Home intruder was radicalised by right-wing commentators and Gamergate, he testified this week

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Wednesday 15 November 2023 23:55 GMT
Paul Pelosi testifies about hammer attack

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Louise Thomas

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Closing arguments began on Wednesday in the San Francisco trial of David DePape, who is facing federal kidnapping charges for an October 2022 break-in at the home of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which ended in her husband Paul being severly beaten with a hammer.

The case underscores the growing influence – and danger – of online conspiracies mixing with American politics. As The Independent reported at the time, the Paul Pelosi attack quickly became fodder for online conspiracies, ranging from the anonymous to Elon Musk.

Here’s what you need to know.

Who is David DePape?

Mr DePape is a 43-year-old who was living in the Bay Area city of Richmond at the time of the attack, supporting himself with odd carpentry jobs.

David DePape
David DePape (ONLINE_YES)

According to social media posts reviewed by The Independent, he appeared to have published an online blog expressing a range of transphobic, antisemitic and racist views, alongside conspiracy theories tied to Covid-19 and QAnon.

What is David DePape on trial for?

On 28 October, 2022, the 43-year-old broke into the Pelosis’ San Francisco mansion, according to both police and Mr DePape’s own lawyers.

Once inside, he asked Mr Pelosi where his wife was, rambled about conspiracy theories, and later bludgeoned Mr Pelosi with a hammer as police arrived, according to body camera footage.

The then-82-year-old suffered a fractured skull and injuries to his arm and hands.

The Canadian is charged with attempted kidnapping of a federal official and assault on a federal official’s immediate family member. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison. He has pleaded not guilty.

Paul Pelosi attack shown in newly released police bodycam footage

After his arrest, Mr DePape told police in a jailhouse interview he planned to capture Nancy Pelosi and interrogate her about various conspiracies and lies the assailant believed she was linked to.

“I’m not trying to get away with it. I know exactly what I did,” he told police.

“If she told the truth, I would let her go scott-free,” he said in the recording. “If she f***** lied, I was going to break her kneecaps.”

The key arguments in the David DePape trial

The federal case hinges on whether officials can prove the 43-year-old attacked the Pelosis as a direct result of the House Speaker’s work in Congress, or as an attempt to impede, intimidate, interfere, or retaliate against her for it.

The 43-year-old’s defence doesn’t dispute that Mr DePape was the one who attacked Paul Pelosi; rather, they argue it wasn’t because of Nancy Pelosi’s official role, but rather as part of a “bizarre” series of QAnon-esque conspiracy beliefs drawing in figures ranging from actor Tom Hanks to Hunter Biden, the president’s son.

“You may think it is all lies, harmful lies that are in fact destroying the country. ... But the evidence in this trial will show that Mr DePape believes these things, he believes them with every ounce of his being,” federal public defender Jodi Linker told jurors during opening arguments, according to The Los Angeles Times. “He believes them firmly and completely, and it is these beliefs, wholly unrelated to Nancy Pelosi’s official duties to Congress, that propelled him to act that night.”

DePape’s lawyers he was fueled by a bizarre set of conspiracy theories, not any particular anger towards Nancy Pelosi and her family
DePape’s lawyers he was fueled by a bizarre set of conspiracy theories, not any particular anger towards Nancy Pelosi and her family (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Prosecutors, meanwhile, have dismissed this argument, saying it was clear that Mr DePape went after the Pelosis because of the Speaker’s position.

“It was a violent plan — a plan to kidnap Nancy Pelosi to hold her hostage, to break her kneecaps, to teach her a lesson,” Assistant US Attorney Laura Vartain Horn told the court at the beginning of the trial, arguing DePape saw Ms Pelosi as “evil, a liar and leader of the pack” of a group of high-profile figures factoring into a conspiracy theory that drove the attack.

What has David DePape said in the trial so far?

On the stand, Mr DePape gave lengthy testimony on Tuesday, offering a mix of apologies and conspiratorial claims – at one point even crying as he said he the various elites in his conspiracy narrative would receive pardons.

The 43-year-old described his transition from holding left-leaning views, including a previous “strong anti-Trump bias,” to falling down the conspiracy rabbithole as he followed the Gamergate mass harassment campaign against women in the video games industry in the mid-2010s.

Later, he said, he began watching hours of right-wing commentary on YouTube a day and tuning into dispatches from figures like Tim Pool and James Lindsay. Eventually, he came to believe various unfounded claims about Donald Trump, and felt that, when it came to his mainstream media coverage, “everything was a lie coming from the press.”

Eventually, he testified, he decided to go after Ms Pelosi as a means of getting her to admit alleged lies and corruption. He told the jury his plan was not to kidnap her, but to interrogate her on camera in a unicorn costume.

“The choice is on her,” he said. “There’s an alternate path to resolution that doesn’t involve violence.”

Federal prosecutors argue DePape targeted Paul and Nancy Pelosi because of the latter’s role in Congress
Federal prosecutors argue DePape targeted Paul and Nancy Pelosi because of the latter’s role in Congress (AP)

He also said he wanted to use the break-in to lure out a University of Michigan gender studies professor he came to believe was trying to “turn our schools into paedophile molestation factories.” Along the way, he also said he hoped to go after California governor Gavin Newsom because of his “trampling [the] 2nd Amendment.”

Despite eventually severely attacking Mr Pelosi, Mr DePape also expressed remorse for the hammer blows. The 43-year-old said he only went after the Pelosis to “get my other targets.”

"I felt really bad for him because we had a good rapport, and Paul was never a target,” he testified, according to NBC News.

The intruder said he decided to hit Mr Pelosi once police arrived his plan was “basically ruined.”

“When he was like on the ground breathing, I was really scared for his life,” he added. “And later in the hospital, I felt really bad for him, because we kind of had a really good rapport and things were going really good until the very last second.”

What has Paul Pelosi testified?

On Monday, Paul Pelosi himself took the stand, describing his horror at finding an unidentified man standing in his house, asking for his wife.

“It was a tremendous sense of shock to recognize that somebody had broken into the house and looking at him and looking at the hammer and the ties, I recognized that I was in serious danger, so I tried to stay as calm as possible,” he told the court, per The Associated Press.

He described how Mr DePape was clearly seeking Ms Pelosi.

“We had some conversation with him saying she was the leader of the pack, he had to take her out, and that he was going to wait for her,” Mr Pelosi said.

Mr Pelosi was able to call 911 as Mr DePape looked on, alerting police to the break-in.

Since the break-in, Mr Pelosi testified that he has tried to think about the traumatic incident as little as possible.

"I have not discussed this incident with anybody. And I have encouraged my family not to either," he said on Monday, according to CBS News. "I have tried to put it out of my mind. It wasn’t until [the prosecutor’s] meeting with you and your associates that I talked about this. I’ve made the best effort that I possibly can to not re-live this."

Why is this case significant?

In addition to the immediate, important task of the jury – evaluating the nature of an attack on a leading politician’s spouse – the case is also symbolic of a larger conspiratorial nexus in the US between the online and political worlds.

The October break-in demonstrated the real-world impact of QAnon-style ideas, as well as the power of the internet to quickly muddle the factual record around a major news event.

AsThe Independent reported at the time, the Paul Pelosi attack quickly generated a string of unfounded conspiracies.

For instance, a since-retracted local news story that the intruder was found in his underwear spawned false claims Mr DePape and Mr Pelosi were secret lovers.

A report from The Gateway Pundit, meanwhile, claimed without substantive evidence that Mr DePape’s lengthy, right-wing internet history was in fact a “another far-left conjured-up lie.”

Commentary from high-profile figures further accelerated the spread of this type of speculation.

Elon Musk, for example, told his millions of followers, “There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye.”

The month after the attack on Paul Pelosi, Donald Trump Jr shared a now-deleted post included a picture of a pair underwear and a hammer, joking that he had his “Paul Pelosi Halloween costume ready.”

What other witnesses have joined the David DePape trial?

Law enforcement sources provided other testimony that helped fill in the record about what happened during the 28 October break-in.

FBI special agent Stephanie Minor, who helped investigate the attack, told the court how evidence showed Mr DePape began planning the break-in in August, buying body cameras, a USB stick, a backpack, and a sleeping bag.

A police officer, meanwhile, described the sickening sound of hearing the hammer hit Paul Pelosi’s skull.

Jurors were shown police body camera and surveillance video footage of the break-in.

What comes next?

Once jurors render a verdict for David DePape, he will move on to face a separate state trial, where he has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, elder abuse, residential burglary, among other charges.

A trial date for the state charges hasn’t been set yet.

Alex Woodward contributed reporting to this story.

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