SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Cowboys for Trump cofounder Couy Griffin was found not guilty Wednesday of a misdemeanor charge of failing to register a political committee at a trial in southern New Mexico.
The verdict from a 12-member jury capped a two-day trial in Alamogordo, the community where Griffin served as an Otero County commissioner until he was banished from office last year for his role in the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
The dismissed charge against Griffin carried a potential punishment of up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Jurors deliberated for more than nine hours before delivering the verdict. The decision interrupts a string of adverse legal decisions for Griffin, who remains barred from elected office under a judge's decision upheld by the New Mexico Supreme Court in February.
Griffin said in a text message that he felt “blessed to be judged by a jury of peers” in his home community and has “never felt as vindicated."
In 2019, Griffin forged a group of rodeo acquaintances into the promotional group called Cowboys for Trump, which staged horseback parades to spread President Donald Trump's conservative message about gun rights, immigration controls and abortion restrictions.
Griffin invoked free speech protections in declining to register and disclose donors to Cowboys for Trump, while expressing concern that financial contributors might be harassed.
In closing arguments Wednesday, prosecutors argued that Griffin used Cowboys for Trump to explicitly link political advocacy to appeals for online donations, while flouting registration and financial disclosure requirements for political committees that are designed to ensure transparency and fairness in elections.
They said Griffin was a politician in his own right who clearly advocated for Trump while the president was a candidate for reelection, and that Griffin also promoted political positions on border enforcement, gun rights, abortion and more.
But the jury wasn't persuaded. Defense attorney Jonathan Miller portrayed Griffin as “just a guy who rides a horse" and tried to do the right thing by registering Cowboys for Trump as a for-profit corporation and notifying donors that they cannot deduct donations from taxes.
Miller, a public defender, said Griffin's intention was to speak boldly and openly about common sense convictions and national pride — without yielding to government control through the regulation of nonprofit groups.
“He shouldn't be punished for showing his pride in his country,” Miller said.
Griffin's attorney also accused state campaign finance regulators of bias and singling out Cowboys for Trump for enforcement.
Since early 2020, Griffin has resisted pressure to register the group as a political committee, including filing an unsuccessful petition with the 10th District Court of Appeals.
The secretary of state’s office initially prevailed in a June 2020 arbitration decision that ordered Cowboys for Trump to register as a political committee, file expenditure and contribution reports and pay a fine of $7,800. Griffin never complied with the agreement.
Griffin was previously convicted in federal court of a misdemeanor for entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, without going inside the building. Last year, he became the first elected official to be banished from elected office in connection with the attack on the U.S. Capitol building, which disrupted Congress as it was trying to certify President Joe Biden's 2020 election victory.
While still a county commissioner, Griffin joined with Republican colleagues in refusing to certify results of the June 2022 primary election based on distrust of the voting systems used to tally the vote, even though the county’s election official said there were no problems. The board ultimately certified the election on a 2-1 vote with Griffin still voting no based on a “gut feeling.”