Brian Dennison, 25, of Buxton, who is accused of allegedly threatening to kill Jewish people with an AR-15 in a tweet, walks out of a federal courthouse in Portland on Monday morning. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Jurors in the trial of a Buxton man who allegedly threatened to kill Jews can be asked if they can be impartial after a racist shooting in Buffalo, New York, earlier this month, a federal judge ruled in a Portland courtroom on Monday.

Brian Dennison, 25, of Buxton has been charged with one count of transmitting a threat through interstate communication for allegedly posting on Twitter, “I’m going to kill jews with my ar15 tomorrow” on the second day of Rosh Hashanah in September 2021. He has pleaded not guilty to that charge.

Jurors can be asked if their awareness of the Buffalo incident affects their ability to be impartial in the case, said Jon Levy, chief justice of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine. It’s unclear when that might occur, but it’s likely to be prior to opening arguments planned for Tuesday.

While it is highly unusual for a lawyer to question jurors after they’ve already been selected, the request came from Dennison’s attorneys amid fears that the case could affect Dennison’s ability to get a fair trial. Jury selection occurred weeks before the Buffalo shooting on May 2 and May 3.

The shooting in Buffalo adds another element to what is already a loaded case involving anti-Semitism, social media, racism and an AR-15 style rifle – around one-third of potential jurors had already said they would not able to be impartial during jury selection.  

If the number of jurors who can remain impartial after questioning is less than 12, the trial most likely would be delayed and a new jury pool would need to be called in.

Dennison has not been charged with committing any violence. However, his case shares similarities with the Buffalo incident, where the alleged assailant, 18-year-old ​​Payton Gendron, opened fire on Black shoppers at a Buffalo supermarket with an AR-15 style Bushmaster XM-15 rifle.

While Gendron allegedly targeted Black people in his shooting, his manifesto posted online shortly before the incident was anti-Semitic and advocated for a war between Jews and non-Jews, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The FBI received information about Dennison’s alleged Jewish violence tweet, as well as another mentioning building a pipe bomb, almost immediately after they were posted, according to a court affidavit. Agents visited the Fogg Road property Dennison shares with his parents and other family members the day he allegedly made the postings.

Dennison did not speak during Monday’s hearing, sitting largely motionless throughout the proceeding while wearing a blue surgical facemask. Facemasks are currently required inside the building

Monday’s morning session was devoted to pre-trial motions. The jury is set to report to the U.S. District Court in Portland on Tuesday morning for a trial that Justice Levy said should last two days.

Much of the hearing was spent on what evidence should be admissible to the jury. Levy said he would not allow the U.S. Attorney to mention elements of Dennison’s search history, including searches related to Adolf Hitler and Jewish circumcision traditions. Levy noted that the search history, on its own, was not “self defining.”

“We could risk a trial within a trial finding meaning,” he said.

Dennison’s attorney Thomas Hallett said he was also fearful of information surrounding Dennison’s AR-15 style Smith and Wesson M&P-15 rifle, including the fact that investigators found it hidden under leaves on the Dennison property in Buxton during a search last October, especially given the Buffalo shooting.

Levy said he would listen to arguments around evidence and would “rule as appropriate” over the course of the trial.