Attorney John Pierce had been representing so many defendants charged in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot that he'd lost exact count.
"I believe it's around 18," he told NPR in a recent interview, adding, "Don't hold me to it."
The Justice Department recently put that number at 17, though that figure often changes. Pierce, a controversial lawyer with pro-Trump politics, has taken on more defendants related to the Capitol breach than any other attorney.
But those cases — and the fates of all of those defendants — were recently, and unexpectedly, put into limbo.
In late August, Pierce failed to show up to court for one of those clients, and prosecutors said they had lost contact with him. The reasons for Pierce's absence were initially tough to pin down.
Pierce's associates said at different points that he was hospitalized with COVID-19 and on a ventilator, that he was in an "accident," and that he had "dehydration and exhaustion." The phone at his legal office appeared to be disconnected, and calls to his cellphone went straight to voicemail. The Justice Department said that the confusion had effectively brought all of his cases to a halt.
Then, on Sept. 7, Pierce reappeared. He said he had been released from a hospital in the Los Angeles area after a 12-day stay but declined to discuss exactly what led to his hospitalization.
"I will not be elaborating further on my personal medical issues," he told NPR in an email. (He did say in his statement, "I have not taken any vaccination for COVID-19, nor do I plan to do so.")
Pierce said that "the morning I went into the hospital was extremely chaotic" and added, "This was an emergency situation that left us with no time to plan better" for the hearings he missed. His abrupt absence gave some clients misgivings about whether or not Pierce is the right lawyer for them. At least three have parted ways with him since his recent hospitalization. Prosecutors may be worried, too. If the Justice Department gets a conviction, and an appeals court finds that Pierce provided ineffective counsel, the conviction could get tossed altogether.
There were already questions about Pierce — a civil litigator who has never tried a criminal case before.
Pierce's career, in his own words, recently "imploded," leaving him with a large amount of debt and fending off multiple lawsuits. Court records from his divorce show that he has dealt with substance abuse and mental health problems for several years. His ex-wife has previously obtained two domestic violence restraining orders against him. Pierce disclosed in court this summer that he received a "letter of inquiry" from the California State Bar, a step the State Bar takes if it is considering disciplinary charges against an attorney. (Pierce declined to comment on that letter.)
Pierce's critics question whether he's taking on so many cases to raise his own profile and argue his story underscores the potential pitfalls of mixing political rhetoric, culture wars and fundraising on the internet with the unforgiving realities of criminal defense in court.
In more than two hours of interviews with NPR before his recent hospital stay, Pierce denied those accusations and addressed some of the most serious criticisms raised about his role in these cases and the finances of his nonprofit conservative legal group.
''I do everything possible to win''
Pierce has long mixed politics and the law, and he's never been afraid to use a stunt — including a man dressed in a chicken suit — to gain attention for his causes.
In 2003, Pierce ran for Allegheny County, Pa., treasurer as a Republican and proposed slashing the office's size by two-thirds. His campaign relied, in part, on his biography: Pierce served in the U.S. Army in the mid-1990s, and said he became a tank platoon leader. ("I just shot at plywood targets," he later told a Tea Party group in August. "So don't get too excited.") He then attended Harvard Law School, where he was one of the editors of the Harvard Law Review.
Still, Pierce's campaign was a long shot. The Democratic incumbent was heavily favored and refused to debate Pierce.
Pierce went on the offense. He had a campaign worker dress up in a chicken suit, dubbed him "Reformo the Chicken," and tried to taunt his opponent into granting a debate.
"I thought it was a cute name because the whole idea of what we were trying to do was to reform sort of the old-school Democratic machine politics in Pittsburgh," Pierce said.
In the end, the chicken gambit did manage to grab a few local headlines (including the endorsement of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper), but mostly just succeeded in making the intern in the suit miserable.
"I mean, this kid either passed out or got severe heat exhaustion from being in that outfit," Pierce said. "So God bless him for it."
Pierce's opponent never agreed to debate, and Pierce lost the race. But he said that campaign does reveal something about his style.
"When I do something, I do everything possible to win," he said. "And I try to do that within the rules, and, you know, I like to have fun."
Pierce later moved to Los Angeles and worked as a civil litigation attorney at a few prominent law firms. In 2017, he founded his own ambitious firm and attracted a raft of attorneys to join him. He said the firm he was building was a kind of legal equivalent of the Navy SEALs, taking on some of the most ambitious civil litigation cases in the country and practicing "the lost art of combat by trial."
Around that same time, court records from his divorce suggest there were problems with Pierce's personal life and finances.
In 2019, Pierce allegedly messaged his ex-wife, "I will hunt u down and f*** u up," according to the records. "Don't f*** with me right now. I will bury u if I have to," he allegedly messaged her at another point. "U have no idea what's coming ur way. Time is ticking. Count it down," reads another message cited in the records.
The next morning, Pierce allegedly texted: "Sorry about all that. Had a bad day yesterday. All good now. Didn't mean any of that."
That followed an incident described in the court records from 2016 when Pierce allegedly "expressed an intense desire to kill" his wife while he was in a psychiatric hospital. (Pierce later denied that he threatened his wife, according to the records.)
In both instances, court records show that Pierce's ex-wife obtained a domestic violence restraining order.
Pierce's ex-wife declined to comment. Her attorney told NPR that "the court file speaks for itself."
Pierce also declined to comment about the details of the filings in his divorce.
"I care about her very, very much," Pierce said of his ex-wife. "I adore and love my children. And, you know, other than that, I'm just not going to comment on anything that's family-related."
His ex-wife has also said in the court filings that Pierce "had a history of abusing alcohol and drugs, including cocaine, during our marriage."
Pierce did tell NPR that his substance abuse problems were worsening in 2020.
"I've had my issues with substances over the years," he said, "and I needed to go to rehab for some time, but I was really too busy." He said he checked into a 30-day rehab program for substance abuse in March 2020.
A financial declaration from his divorce case indicates that he personally owed more than $1 million in taxes as of 2019.
And Pierce's firm also began having money problems.
By 2020, Pierce's law firm dissolved amid allegations of mismanagement. Dozens of attorneys abandoned the firm, and Pierce has since been sued by multiple creditors. Pierce told NPR that, in retrospect, the firm grew too large, too fast. Pierce told NPR that he does not know how much money the firm currently owes, though he said, "they're not small numbers." He added that he fully intends to pay off all of the debt.
Now, Pierce has pledged to rebuild his career, in part, with a series of high-profile politically charged cases, including those related to the Capitol riot. But his financial problems have sometimes cast a shadow on his work.
In 2020, Pierce joined the defense team for Kyle Rittenhouse, who has been charged with homicide in the killing of two people during the unrest in Kenosha, Wis., and has become a conservative cause célèbre. Prosecutors challenged Pierce's role. One prosecutor questioned how he was using the large amount of money raised for Rittenhouse's legal defense.
Given Pierce's "substantial personal debts," Wisconsin prosecutors wrote in a legal filing, there was "ample opportunity for self-dealing and fraud."
Pierce withdrew from appearing in court in that case. The Rittenhouse team eventually fired him amid questions about how he managed money raised to support Rittenhouse's defense.
Rittenhouse's mother told Law & Crime News that Pierce and another attorney "used Kyle to gain money, gain Twitter followers. I felt — now — they didn't care about Kyle." (Rittenhouse did not respond to NPR's request for comment.)
Pierce denied any wrongdoing and said he still strongly supports Rittenhouse's innocence. He declined to comment further on the allegations related to the Rittenhouse case.
''The time for peaceful protest comes to an end''
In person, especially when speaking with an NPR reporter, Pierce can be somewhat circumspect. His presence online is another story. And he did acknowledge to NPR that he can be "fiery."
In November, he declared — falsely — that Donald Trump won the election. "POTUS won by a landslide," he tweeted and added, "The elites are trying to steal it through a massive and concerted fraud." (In person, he told NPR that "some very strange things happened" in the election, but he did not express a firm view on the outcome.)
And on Jan. 6, Pierce was still tweeting.
When one Trump supporter tweeted, "We only want peaceful people involved in the MAGA movement," Pierce responded, "Wrong."
In another tweet on the evening of Jan. 6, Pierce said, "When Tyranny reaches a certain point, the time for peaceful protest comes to an end."
When asked about that assertion, Pierce said his tweet about "tyranny" was "a general statement that was really not designed to be directed at Jan. 6."
And he stood by his other tweets that day. "I do not condone any violence of any sort in a civilized society unless legally justified," he said. "However, I do believe that Republican politicians who reflexively reacted by accepting the media narrative and playing into it before all the facts are known are indeed soft and weak." He also added, "Defense of self and others has been protected under the Anglo-American legal system for a thousand years."
Back on the day of the Capitol riot, he also tweeted a promise that would guide the next several months of his work: "There will be many patriotic Americans who badly need legal help after today. We are building an army of lawyers to provide the help needed. Please send anyone who has had their rights violated and needs help my way."
Pierce soon took on more than a dozen of those cases, ranging from people facing misdemeanors over essentially trespassing to alleged conspirators from far-right extremist groups. And groups raising funds to support the defendants in the Capitol attack have touted Pierce as a go-to attorney.
Strategies with "a lot of risk"
Pierce declined to talk in great detail about his legal strategy for the Jan. 6 cases. But he did tell NPR he is "taking a look" at a theory that the defendants were "entrapped" by government agents who may have instigated the riot to discredit Trump supporters.
In a July tweet directed at the FBI, Pierce wrote, "[H]ow many agents, proxies, informants, recruited special ops or any other kind of representatives did you have plan, instigate, participate or cover-up January 6th? #FalseFlag"
Here is a direct question to the @FBI from the lawyer who represents the most January 6th defendants: how many agents, proxies, informants, recruited special ops or any other kind of representatives did you have plan, instigate, participate or cover-up January 6th? #FalseFlag— John Pierce (@CaliKidJMP) July 15, 2021
That theory has gotten traction on the far right and on Fox News, but so far there is little, if any, public evidence supporting it.
Many defense lawyers also tell their clients a simple rule when it comes to the media: "Say nothing."
But in some cases, Pierce has actually encouraged his clients to speak to the press.
He argued it was important to challenge the dominant narrative about the Jan. 6 riot. "If you let that go completely unanswered and unchecked, then, candidly, your odds for a fair trial will almost evaporate," he told NPR.
Legal experts said this is a potentially dangerous strategy.
"In the moment your client speaks, your client is producing evidence that the government can then use," said Alison Guernsey, a former federal public defender and a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law. "There is a lot of risk there."
Experts said that Pierce's lack of criminal law experience also poses a serious challenge if he does indeed plan to take every case to trial.
"It's not just something that you can walk into without ever having done it before," said Erica Hashimoto, who is also a former federal public defender and a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. "Somebody's life is in your hands," she said.
"I've spent the better part of 10 years trying to become at least a little bit of an expert in the federal criminal law field," Guernsey said. "And I will tell you that every single day something comes up that I've never encountered before."
Pierce contended that his civil litigation experience was useful because "trial work is trial work."
"The specialty of trial work is marshaling evidence and persuading regular people that your view of the facts is draped on the correct legal theory in a very authentic way, such that the jury also feels that it's doing justice," Pierce said.
Another challenge is the large number of cases Pierce has taken on. One criminal defense attorney told NPR that, given the intense level of preparation involved, it would be extremely difficult to prepare for more than one trial per month. Pierce has pledged to take on 18 or more, and these cases involve thousands of hours of video footage and terabytes of data for discovery.
"We're building an army of folks, and we'll be able to handle it," Pierce contended. "No problem."
He said the overlapping nature of some of the cases meant the workload would be lighter, but experts said that could also present possible conflicts of interest for Pierce. For example, if one of Pierce's clients decided to cooperate with the government and testify against another one of Pierce's clients, it could create a significant problem.
"Even if you believe at the outset that there's not going to be a conflict, cases are fluid, people's minds change," Guernsey said.
Pierce said he is on the lookout for those conflicts and will withdraw from any cases where there appears to be a problem. Federal prosecutors may also challenge Pierce's role and ask a judge to intervene. If prosecutors obtain a conviction, they will want to avoid any potential appeals on the basis that Pierce failed to prevent conflicts properly.
A legal nonprofit raises questions
In April, while Pierce was amassing more clients from the Capitol riot, he launched a nonprofit legal organization called the National Constitutional Law Union, or NCLU. He's described the group as a more conservative-minded answer to the American Civil Liberties Union, which he argued has taken on a "leftist agenda."
He has been fundraising for the group online, and Pierce said upfront that "my law firm will receive substantial funds from the NCLU because we are doing so much of the work that's important right now."
As of August, Pierce had publicly said the group had received about 1,000 donations, and the average donation size was $57. Pierce later said, "Those numbers are now substantially higher, but I am not going to comment further."
"Not a single penny of it has been touched yet," Pierce told NPR. "But, of course, that is expected to change imminently."
So far, the organization has two people listed on its "Team" page: Pierce and a man named Ryan Joseph-Gene Marshall. After Pierce recently failed to appear in court, Marshall tried to take his place. But federal prosecutors noted that Marshall is not a licensed attorney, and there's reason to believe he'll have trouble getting a license: Marshall is currently facing felony criminal charges in Pennsylvania in connection with an alleged scheme to defraud a widow, according to the local prosecutor.
During his interview with NPR, Pierce said Marshall is innocent. In addition to his other clients, Pierce is also acting as Marshall's attorney. (NPR was unable to reach Marshall directly.)
While Pierce lives in California, he had the NCLU incorporated in Wyoming. He said he made that decision because of the conservative approach to regulation there.
"I wanted to form it in a state in which I felt like I would get fairer treatment, based on our mission statement, from the regulators," he said.
To experts on nonprofit law, Pierce's group raised potential red flags.
For one, federal regulations of nonprofits prohibit what's called "private inurement" — which essentially means the improper use of a nonprofit's money for the benefit of an individual. It's not necessarily wrong for a nonprofit to pay one of its officers' law firms for legal work. But regulators generally expect groups to go through an objective process to ensure that money is being spent for the benefit of the nonprofit's mission and not one person's private gain. Often that process goes through a group's board of directors.
"There doesn't appear to be any independent oversight of the way this organization is conducting its activities," said Sean Delany, a former assistant attorney general in charge of the Charities Bureau of the New York State Attorney General's Office.
Laurie Styron, executive director of the group CharityWatch, called the close financial arrangement between the NCLU and Pierce "quite bold."
"Most nonprofits don't do things this way," Styron said. "The optics are just terrible."
Pierce said that, at the moment, "we're still getting the corporate governance straight."
He later wrote in an email to NPR, "An independent committee of the board of directors will decide on any disbursements to my firm, which will only be for work that falls within the NCLU mission statement."
Defendants in limbo
On Aug. 23, Pierce made plans for a follow-up interview with NPR, and he was still in touch with federal prosecutors regarding his Capitol riot cases. Just two days later, at a scheduled hearing for one of his clients, Pierce did not show up. Instead, Marshall appeared in his place and said he believed Pierce had COVID-19 and was on a ventilator.
Marshall does not have a law license. And that led to some tough questions from federal judges and prosecutors, who contended that Marshall could not represent any defendants in court. The "army" of lawyers that Pierce had promised also did not appear. For two weeks, the cases were essentially put on pause.
Now that Pierce is out of the hospital, he has promised to continue representing all of his Jan. 6 clients. And he insisted that his "army" is still on its way. He said several people had already joined his efforts so far, though it is "still very much in an organizational state." He was reluctant to provide further details. "We are not releasing names at this time to protect those individuals because of the obsessive and fake nature of the media coverage surrounding me," he said.
Since Pierce's unexpected absence, one client has said that she is "completely comfortable and very happy" with Pierce.
But others are more uneasy.
Angel Harrelson, the wife of one defendant, wrote in a fundraising email that she had difficulty getting Pierce's attention on her husband's case even before his absence.
"We are having so many issues getting our attorney to file certain motions or even basically to do his job!" Harrelson wrote in an email first reported by The New York Times.
It seems John Pierce's health is exacerbating tensions w/his client Oath Keeper Kenneth Harrelson.— Alan Feuer (@alanfeuer) August 26, 2021
Yesterday Harrelson's wife sent out this email asking for donations & complaining that even before Pierce fell ill, he was incommunicative & unversed in the details of the case. pic.twitter.com/MELOoSZMjm
Harrelson declined to comment to NPR. She posted on a fundraising page that she was now scrambling to find the money for a new attorney, who would essentially be starting from scratch. That attorney appeared in court on Wednesday.
Another client, Victoria White, decided to fire Pierce at a hearing last week.
"His phone's all disconnected — that just doesn't seem right," White said of Pierce.
But White said she would need time, because it had been extremely difficult to find a lawyer to represent her, especially one "that's not gonna take advantage of us."
In response, Pierce told NPR, "I will not comment about current or former clients."
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
There are now more than 600 people who have been criminally charged in connection with the January 6 Capitol riot. A conservative, pro-Trump lawyer has been representing nearly 20 of those cases, more than anyone else. But then, as NPR's Tom Dreisbach reports, the lawyer stopped showing up in court.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Let them go. Let them go.
TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: A lot of lawyers might be reluctant to lead a big public event like this one, a, quote, "rally against political persecution" for people charged in the Capitol riot. But a lot of lawyers are not John Pierce.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN PIERCE: We are going to take every one of these cases to trial. And in that process, we are going to find out exactly what actually happened on January 6.
DREISBACH: This was Pierce at a rally this summer. He's a pro-Trump, conservative attorney and in some ways as much a political figure as a lawyer. Despite a lack of evidence, he has hinted online that he believes the Capitol riot was a conspiracy by the so-called deep state to discredit Trump supporters. And at the event, he said he had taken on about a dozen cases stemming from the riot.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PIERCE: I either have courage, or I'm fearless, or I'm very reckless. But these folks need representation.
DREISBACH: I interviewed Pierce a couple months after that event. And by then, his client list had only grown.
PIERCE: I think I represent the most of any lawyer in the country.
DREISBACH: What's the number now?
PIERCE: You know, I believe it's around 18. You know, it does kind of change on a day-to-day basis. But you know, don't hold me to it.
DREISBACH: Some of those cases involve high-profile conspiracy charges against alleged members of extremist groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. Each case involves sifting through thousands of hours of raw video footage, huge hard drives and other discovery material looking for a needle in a massive haystack of evidence. It's a big undertaking for even an experienced criminal defense attorney, and that's the thing.
How many criminal trials have you done before?
PIERCE: So I don't think I've done any criminal trials before.
DREISBACH: So how did this civil attorney end up with these major criminal investigations? Here's a bit more background. In the '90s, Pierce served in the Army. Then he went to Harvard Law School, worked for a couple big law firms in Los Angeles before starting his own in 2017. But in Pierce's words, his career and the firm imploded within a few years, leaving it with millions of dollars of debt and fending off multiple lawsuits. He said one reason for the implosion was his problem with substance abuse. He went to a 30-day rehab program in March 2020. Around that same time, court records show that his ex-wife obtained two separate restraining orders against Pierce after he allegedly threatened to kill her, in 2016 and again in 2019. Pierce declined to discuss his ex-wife or her allegations.
PIERCE: I care about her very, very much. I adore and love my children. And other than that, I'm just not going to comment on anything that's family related.
DREISBACH: A lawyer for Pierce's ex-wife said simply that the court records speak for themselves.
Since last year, Pierce has been trying to rebuild, and he's been doing that with some controversial political cases. First, he worked on the defense for Kyle Rittenhouse. He's the 18-year-old who shot and killed two people during unrest on the streets of Kenosha, Wis., and he's been supported by conservatives. But earlier this year, Rittenhouse fired Pierce. And his mother, Wendy, said she thought Pierce and his team were just in it for the money and attention, not to help her son. Here's Wendy Rittenhouse speaking to the website Law and Crime News.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WENDY RITTENHOUSE: They used Kyle to gain money, gain Twitter followers. I felt now they didn't care about Kyle.
DREISBACH: Pierce did not want to get into the details of the dispute with the Rittenhouses, but he denied all wrongdoing. And despite the firing, it appears his involvement in that case helped raise his profile and led him to the Capitol riot cases. It may have helped that he's also what he calls a fiery, pro-Trump conservative. In fact, on the day of the riot, when someone tweeted that there was only room for, quote, "peaceful people in the Trump movement," Pierce responded, wrong. In another tweet after the riot, he wrote, quote, "When tyranny reaches a certain point, the time for peaceful protest comes to an end." I asked him about that.
PIERCE: That was a general statement. That was not, you know, honestly meant to suggest that what happened at the Capitol was a good or bad thing or legal or otherwise. That was a general statement about America's philosophy of government.
DREISBACH: But controversy around Pierce doesn't just come from his politics. In fact, other conservative attorneys have publicly called him a, quote, "grifter," and they point to the nonprofit group Pierce set up, the NCLU. Pierce said the group will fight for American civil liberties, a kind of conservative answer to the ACLU. And he did not hide how it will spend the donations it receives.
PIERCE: My law firm will receive, you know, substantial funds from the NCLU because we are doing so much of the work that's important right now.
DREISBACH: Pierce said he has not spent any of the money donated to the NCLU so far and that he will set up a board of directors to vet where the cash goes. He's adamant that he is not in these cases for the money.
PIERCE: I think anybody who really knows me - the suggestion that I would not be doing things with the clients' interests in mind just falls flat, and it's just completely false.
DREISBACH: I talked to experts in criminal defense about Pierce's role in these cases, and they were concerned. For one, there's the possibility that there could be a conflict of interest. For example, what if one of Pierce's clients wanted to cooperate with the government and testify against another Pierce client? Then there's the fact that Pierce encourages his clients to talk to the media, and all of those statements could be used against them in court.
But Erica Hashimoto, a former federal public defender and now a law professor at Georgetown, says the biggest problem is that he's trying to handle so many criminal trials with so little experience.
ERICA HASHIMOTO: It's not just something that you can walk into without ever having done it before.
DREISBACH: In other words, you really don't want to learn on the fly.
HASHIMOTO: That's exactly right 'cause somebody's life is in your hands.
DREISBACH: And it's not just a concern for these defendants. If prosecutors get a conviction and an appeals court finds that Pierce provided ineffective counsel, that conviction could get tossed. When I asked Pierce about these concerns, he insisted that, quote, "trial work is trial work" and that he and his team would be able to handle 18 cases or even more.
PIERCE: We're building an army of folks, and we'll be able to handle it no problem.
DREISBACH: But then, a couple weeks ago, Pierce did not show up to court. And that army never stepped up. Instead, a colleague who is not a licensed attorney and is actually himself facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania appeared in court. He told the judge that Pierce had COVID-19 and might be on a ventilator. Another person sent me a statement that Pierce actually had dehydration and exhaustion. I was unable to reach Pierce for nearly two weeks, and this is what happened when I called his law office.
RECORDED VOICE: The number you dialed is not in service at this time. Thank you for calling. Goodbye.
DREISBACH: Then, just yesterday, I heard back over email. Pierce said he just got out of the hospital over the weekend and there just hadn't been enough time to get someone to take over his cases because things were so chaotic. He did not want to talk about his medical problems in any detail, and he did not mention COVID, except to say he has not gotten the vaccine and does not plan to. He does plan to stay on all these cases, though, and said he is still building that army of lawyers. But at least a few defendants have fired him since his absence. Others have said they do want to stick with Pierce, seems to help that he shares their pro-Trump politics. But as one defense attorney told me, it's dangerous to mix politics with the unforgiving realities of a criminal trial.
Tom Dreisbach, NPR News, Los Angeles.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.