TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A man on trial for threatening to kill U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner cross-examined the Kansas Republican on Wednesday in federal court, with the congressman rejecting the defendant's suggestions that he was conveying a message from God.
LaTurner was the last prosecution witness in the trial of Chase Neill, 32, from the northeastern Kansas city of Lawrence. Prosecutors contend that Neill, who is representing himself in court, became fixated on LaTurner and then made his threat in a June 5 phone message left after hours at LaTurner’s office in Topeka.
The trial came amid what authorities say is a sharp rise in threats against the nation’s lawmakers over the past two years. LaTurner testified that he beefed up the security at his Topeka office and home in response to Neill’s message because he worried about the safety of his family and staff.
Neill suggested Wednesday during his cross-examination of prosecution witnesses that he believes he is a “religious heir” whose message to LaTurner followed a tradition of Old Testament prophets following a duty of speaking for God and doing it as if they were God themselves. In questioning LaTurner, Neill asked whether it was reasonable for Neill to identify himself in his voicemail as the son of God.
“I thought the whole voicemail was unreasonable, especially the death threat parts,” LaTurner replied.
Before presiding U.S. District Judge Holly Teeter allowed Neill to take over his own defense Wednesday, federal public defenders argued that Neill is harmless because he expected God to send "meteors and plagues” to punish LaTurner and government officials across the Earth. The public defenders also said Neill never tried to get close to LaTurner and after Neill left the message, local authorities did not arrest him or send him to a mental health hospital or ward.
In the June voicemail message, Neill said he had contacted LaTurner’s office before about whether Congress was pursuing issues involving witchcraft, divination, wizards and “creatures.”
Threats against members of Congress have increased since the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. In October, an intruder severely beat former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband with a hammer in their San Francisco home.
Local school board members and election workers across the nation also have endured harassment and threats. Police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this week arrested a former Republican legislative candidate over a series of shootings targeting elected Democratic officials’ homes or offices, though none were injured.
Neill acknowledges that he left the voicemail message in June telling LaTurner, “I am saying that I will kill you,” but argues that his use of the phrase “act of God” in the same message means he was forwarding a message from God, not himself.
While LaTurner testified that he thought Neill was using some “ridiculous talk," he focused on the death threat. He received an anonymous written threat in the mailbox at his Topeka home early in 2021, when he first entered Congress.
As for the “act of God phrase, LaTurner told Neill: "I thought it meant something more nefarious, that there would be an attempt to kill me and it wouldn't be detectable.”
Neill's questioning of LaTurner was bizarrely low-key, with the clean-shaven LaTurner sitting at the witness stand in a dark suit and the bearded Neill at the lawyers' podium wearing khaki pants, a blue jacket and a dress shirt without a tie. Neill had a Bible with him at the podium.
His cross-examination of LaTurner ended abruptly after an objection from prosecutors to a question to the congressman, “Do you believe that God has a right to punish people?”
A U.S. magistrate judge said in an August order refusing to release Neill from custody that Neill had suffered a head injury four or five years ago “characterized as a head fracture.” But Teeter concluded during a hearing last month that Neill was capable of following what was going on in court and assisting his lawyers, making him mentally competent to stand trial.
Twice within the past week, Neill asked to represent himself, withdrawing one request before his federal court jury was selected Tuesday. He said Wednesday in court that he has been portrayed as “a false Christ,” damaging his reputation.
Teeter granted the second request, finding it was his right to to represent himself and he could do so competently, despite his lack of legal training as a high school graduate with some college education. The judge warned Neill repeatedly Wednesday that she thought it unwise for him to represent himself, but he was adamant.
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