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David DePape trial: Opening statements lay out right-wing conspiracy theories defense says led to Paul Pelosi attack

Opening statements in DePape trial lay out right-wing conspiracy
Opening statements in DePape trial lay out right-wing conspiracy 03:05

Editor's Note: The above video of this story incorrectly states the possible federal sentence as "life" when it is a maximum of 50-years. The text below has been updated and corrected. 

Opening statements began Thursday in the federal trial of David DePape, accused in the Oct. 2022 hammer attack on Paul Pelosi, with the defense attorney laying out the outlandish conspiracy theories that drove DePape to seek out then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the couple's Pacific Heights home in San Francisco.  

ALSO READ: David DePape is on trial, accused of attacking Paul Pelosi in his home. Here's what to know.

Defense attorney Jodi Linker said the defense team would not dispute the government's video evidence of the attack that fractured Paul Pelosi's skull and DePape's other actions that night, but told jurors they would learn it was the result of a misguided crusade against what he perceived as a corrupt ruling class that needed to be taken down.

David DePape (R) watches as prosecutor Laura Vartain Horn (L) shows evidence to jurors during opening statements at DePape's federal trial, November 9, 2023. Sketch by Vicki Behringer

"Bizarre, misguided and unthoughtful"

Linker's opening remarks referenced a litany of right-wing and QAnon-inspired beliefs about a sinister cabal of government officials and elites - Pelosi, Rep. Adam Schiff, George Soros, Hunter Biden, Tom Hanks, Gov. Gavin Newsom - using wealth and power to spread lies and send the country into ruin. 

"Members of the jury, many of us do not believe any of that," said Linker. "But the evidence in this trial will show that Mr. DePape believes all these things…with every ounce of his being."

DePape has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted kidnapping of a federal official and assault on an immediate family member of a federal official. 

Still from police bodycam video released by San Francisco Superior Court showing suspect David DePape and Paul Pelosi appearing to hold a hammer. San Francisco Superior Court

"At the end of this trial, you will know that the reason he acted had nothing to do with Nancy Pelosi [and her] official duties as a member of Congress," said Linker. "The reason, the why of all of this, had everything to do with the ruling class engaged in corruption. The media spreading lies and protecting children. [DePape] went to the Pelosi home to effectuate his plan as bizarre, misguided and unthoughtful as it was."

The defense also maintained that Paul Pelosi was not part of that plan and that the accused went to the San Francisco home to talk about wealth, power, corruption and preservation of truth, but not to kidnap or attack the Pelosis.

ALSO READ: Gov. Gavin Newsom accuses Fox News of "creating a culture" that led to attack on Paul Pelosi

Prosecution's case

Before Linker's statements, prosecutors began their opening statements by laying out some of the video and photographic evidence of the hammer attack on Paul Pelosi, including a graphic image of his head injuries as he lay in a pool of blood on the floor. The prosecution described how the accused "unleashed his plan of violence."   

Federal prosecutor Laura Vartain Horn said the government would prove beyond a reasonable doubt that DePape intended to kidnap and hold Nancy Pelosi hostage and attacked Paul Pelosi after warning him "you stop me from going after evil, you will take the punishment instead."

Nancy Pelosi was in Washington, DC, at the time of the attack. Police arrived at the home after Paul Pelosi managed to call 911 during the encounter with DePape, who appeared in his bedroom and woke him up, asking "Where's Nancy?"

Investigators said DePape told them he planned to "break her kneecaps" if Nancy Pelosi lied to him about the whereabouts of other people he was targeting.

Among those expected to testify is the person referred to in court papers as "Target 1." Prosecutors say DePape planned to kidnap Nancy Pelosi to get to Target 1, now identified as Bay Area scholar Dr. Gayle Rubin, a leading academic in feminist theory and queer studies.

David DePape courtroom sketch
David DePape courtroom sketch during the opening day of his federal trial. Sketch by Vicki Behringer

"Because [DePape] believes she is promoting child molestation," said Linker. "She is going to say this is all completely false, that she believes no such things. But David believes it."

ALSO READ: News orgs file court motion seeking access to Pelosi attack evidence

The prosecution's first witness, a San Francisco police officer, described the attack captured on multiple body cameras on October 28 as "iron hitting skull." 

DePape, dressed in a navy sweater and khaki pants, sat stoically facing the jury. 

"There's always a shot, but there's almost no legal argument here," said UC Law San Francisco Professor Rory Little, an expert on federal criminal procedure. "The defense is trying to say, 'Well, he really believed other things. He didn't really believe that he was going to be assaulting Paul Pelosi.' But he doesn't have to believe it. At the moment he hit him with a hammer, he knew he was hitting him with a hammer."

The government's lead prosecutor held a plastic bag, showing jurors the hammer used that night, and presented multiple videos of Pelosi lying on the floor in a pool of his blood in the immediate aftermath. 

"The video evidence is very powerful, but I think this would be an easy case to prove without a video," said Little. "You have one or two officers on the scene who witnessed this, and then you have the defendant's own statements, as well as his backpack."

Prosecutors say DePape's backpack contained zip ties, rope and duct tape. 

The defense is focusing on painting the why of the case, arguing that DePape believes in far-right conspiracies including Hollywood and political elites promoting and facilitating the sexual abuse and trafficking of children.

They haven't raised an insanity defense. What they're trying to do is, in a sense, use a back door to bring in some kind of mental insanity; that he's just crazy," said Little. "But that's not a defense unless you raise it as an insanity defense." 

Jurors for the federal trial were sworn in Monday. This trial is scheduled to continue Monday and run through next week. If convicted, DePape could face up to 50 years in prison. 

DePape also faces separate state charges including attempted murder, residential burglary, and threats to a public official among other charges, which could carry a 13 years-to-life sentence. The timing of that trial is scheduled to be determined at the end of the month. He has also pleaded not guilty to those charges.  

Kenny Choi contributed to this story.

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