TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A man charged with threatening to kill a Kansas congressman said in federal court Wednesday that he has a “very religious” defense and is now acting as his own attorney, despite a judge's warnings that he is making a big mistake.
Prosecutors hoped to call U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner, the Republican whose Topeka office received the phone call prompting the criminal charge, as a witness Wednesday afternoon.
The trial of Chase Neill, 32, of the northeastern Kansas city of Lawrence, came amid what authorities say is a sharp rise in threats against the nation's lawmakers and their families.
Prosecutors contend Neill became fixated on LaTurner and threatened to kill him in a call the night of June 5 and subsequent calls the next day. Federal public defenders initially representing Neill said he saw himself as having a special relationship with God that allowed him to call down “meteors and plagues" on officials and that local authorities saw him as harmless.
Twice within the past week, Neill has 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.
U.S. District Judge Holly Teeter granted Neill's latest request, finding that he can defend himself competently, despite his lack of legal training as a high school graduate with some college education. Before she brought the jury back into the courtroom Wednesday morning, Teeter warned Neill repeatedly that she considered his decision unwise and that he had top public defenders representing him.
“Many defendants would relish the opportunity to be represented by your counsel,” she told him.
But Neill was adamant and said he believes the U.S. government is abusing its power by prosecuting him. He added, “This matter is very religious."
“These global events do represent my relationship with God,” he told Teeter, without being more specific.
Members of Congress have faced a sharp rise in threats 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.
In Neill's trial, he appeared in court Wednesday wearing khaki pants, a blue jacket and a dress shirt without a tie, just as he had Tuesday, but he was no longer chained at the ankles. Teeter cited both his professional dress and his polite demeanor in court as favoring allowing him to to represent himself.
He and prosecutors do not dispute that he called LaTurner's office in Topeka on June 5 and left a message in which he said, “This is a threat to your life.” Prosecutors say the call prompted LaTurner to beef up security at the office.
Part of the June call was played for jurors during the prosecution's opening statement, and it included a threat against all members of Congress. A public defender said Neill also threatened the entire universe and never attempted to go near LaTurner or his office.
Separately, 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.”
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.
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