Trial starts for Lawrence man accused of threatening to kill Congressman LaTurner
photo by: John Hanna/AP File
TOPEKA — Jury selection began Tuesday in a federal criminal trial for a man prosecutors say became fixated on a Kansas congressman and threatened to kill him, a case that comes amid what authorities say is a sharp rise in treats to the nation’s lawmakers and their families.
Prosecutors say Chase Neill, 32, threatened to kill U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner in a June 5 voicemail message left at the Republican congressman’s office, then continued to make threatening calls the following day. In one message, presiding U.S. District Judge Holly Teeter said in court Tuesday, he told LaTurner that he would “die by the hand of God.”
Jury selection began in the morning after Neill withdrew a request to act as his own attorney. His court-appointed public defenders notified Teeter of that request Friday and told her they would refuse to work with him in a “hybrid” defense. After a private conference, Teeter told Neill from the bench that she believed such an arrangement would be “untenable.”
After Neill withdrew his request, Teeter told him, “For whatever it’s worth, I think that’s a very wise decision.”
Neill’s trial in U.S. District Court on one count of threatening a public official was scheduled through Friday. It came weeks after Teeter concluded that evidence of mental illness doesn’t mean Neill can’t help his attorney or follow what happens in court.
Before jury selection, Teeter confirmed with prosecutors and Neill’s attorneys that no plea bargains had been offered or sought.
Neill told her, without explaining further, “I believe there were arguable grounds for immunity, but that’s fine.”
In court, Neill wore khaki pants, a dress shirt and a navy blue jacket without a tie. He had a full beard.
A pretrial report said Neill believes he is “the Messiah.” Prosecutors have said in court documents that Neill believes he was “obligated by God” to warn “certain public figures” and detail the results of not heeding his warnings.
Teeter concluded during a hearing last month that “a preponderance of the evidence” showed Neill was mentally competent to stand trial. The official notes from the hearing showed Teeter relied on a psychological evaluation of Neill, but that document is sealed and closed to the public.
A magistrate who ordered Neill to remain in custody in June 2022 said he also had threatened other members of Congress. The others have not been named and Neill is charged only with threatening LaTurner.
LaTurner was a Kansas state senator and state treasurer before winning his U.S. House seat in 2020. Until the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature redrew political boundaries last year, LaTurner’s eastern Kansas district included Neill’s hometown of Lawrence, which includes the main University of Kansas campus and is among Kansas’ most liberal communities.
Members of Congress have seen a sharp rise in threats in the two years since the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. In October, an intruder attacked and 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 U.S. also have endured harassment, intimidation and threats of violence. Police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Monday arrested a former Republican candidate for a state House seat in a series of shootings targeting the homes or offices of elected Democratic officials, though none was injured.
In the Kansas case, Neill’s attorney and prosecutors declined to comment ahead of the trial.
LaTurner’s office also did not comment. The congressman and four of his staffers are potential prosecution witnesses.
The pretrial report on Neill, describing his “Messiah” belief, also said police in Lawrence had reports in March 2018 that Neill was delusional and paranoid and had accused one officer of trying to steal his “unicorn business idea.” Neill was sentenced to six months in jail in February 2019 on a domestic battery charge, the report said.
U.S. Magistrate Rachel Schwartz cited the pretrial report in refusing a request from Neill in August to be released from custody. Schwartz said in her order that he had $150,000 in student loan debt but no income.
Schwartz also said in her order that Neill suffered a head injury four or five years ago “characterized as a head fracture.”