Why is Hunter Biden on trial? Inside the federal gun charges (2024)

ByBernd Debusmann Jr,BBC News, Washington

Why is Hunter Biden on trial? Inside the federal gun charges (1)Why is Hunter Biden on trial? Inside the federal gun charges (2)Getty

Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden, is on trial in Delaware, making him the first child of a sitting president to be a criminal defendant.

Prosecutors allege the younger Biden, 54, lied about his drug use on application forms when he purchased a handgun in 2018.

Mr Biden has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Opening statements in the case began on 4 June, after 12 jurors and four alternates were sworn in. The trial is expected to run to mid-June.

If the jury finds him guilty of all three federal counts, Mr Biden could face up to 25 years in prison.

The trial - which comes as his father campaigns for re-election - has seen prosecutors delve into the details of Mr Biden's crack cocaine addiction, potentially providing fodder for the president's political foes.

President Biden has repeatedly declined to comment on the court case, but he said in a statement on the morning of the trial's start that he has "boundless love" and "confidence" in his son.

"Hunter's resilience in the face of adversity and the strength he has brought to his recovery are inspiring to us," the elder Biden said.

President Biden has also said that he will accept the outcome of the trial, and would not pardon his son if he is found guilty.

Here's what we know about the case.

What are the charges?

Mr Biden is facing three federal charges in the case: two counts of making false statements and one count of illegal gun possession.

The charges all relate to his purchase of a revolver at a Delaware gun store in October 2018, which he kept for about 11 days.

By Mr Biden's own admission, he was deep in the throes of a "full blown addiction" to crack cocaine at the time.

The two false statement charges stem from allegations that he lied about his drug use on a federally-mandated form when he purchased the weapon.

Why is Hunter Biden on trial? Inside the federal gun charges (3)Why is Hunter Biden on trial? Inside the federal gun charges (4)Getty

Specifically, prosecutors allege that he falsely claimed that he was "not an unlawful user of and addicted to any stimulant narcotic drug" when he purchased a Colt Cobra Special revolver.

The third count is related to his possession of a firearm while alleged to have been a drug user.

The gun was discarded by Hallie Biden - Mr Biden's ex-girlfriend and the widow of his late brother, Beau - and was later discovered in a grocery store rubbish bin in Greenville, Delaware, prompting an investigation that ultimately led investigators back to the forms.

How strong is the evidence?

To convict Mr Biden, prosecutors will have to convince jurors that he knowingly made false statements on the form in a bid to deceive the store that sold him the pistol.

Additionally, they will have to prove that Mr Biden was a drug user or addicted to drugs, and took possession of the gun despite knowing as much.

US District Judge Maryellen Noreika has already ruled that defence lawyers cannot argue that the prosecution can only get a guilty verdict by proving Mr Biden was using drugs on the day he bought the weapon.

Instead, in a pre-trial hearing, the judge agreed with prosecutors' argument that they need only prove that "unlawful use (had) occurred recently enough to indicate that the individual (was) actively engaged in such conduct".

Prosecutors have relied on deeply personal text messages and other communications made while Mr Biden was in the throes of addiction.

In one such text message cited in court documents, Mr Biden refers to himself as a "liar and a thief and a blame and a user and I'm delusional and an addict unlike beyond and above all other addicts that you know".

In another sent to Hallie Biden a day after the gun was purchased, Mr Biden says he was on his way to meet a dealer named Mookie.

Ms Biden, who was called to testify by prosecutors, told the court that the text had meant "he was buying crack cocaine".

Other witnesses called to the stand were Mr Biden's ex-wife, Kathleen Buhle, and ex-girlfriend Zoe Kestan, who both spoke about his addiction.

Prosecutors have also pointed to Mr Biden's own 2021 memoir, in which he detailed his experiences as a drug user who was "up twenty-four hours a day, smoking every 15 minutes, seven days a week".

"All my energy revolved around smoking drugs and making arrangements to buy drugs - feeding the beast," he wrote in the book.

While Mr Biden has himself been quiet about the trial, documents filed by his lawyers suggest they will try to focus on how much Mr Biden was aware of his addiction at the end of the purchase, and on the quality of the evidence itself.

When questioning Hallie Biden, defence lawyer Abbe Lowell also sought to cast doubt on whether his client was seen using drugs on the day of the purchase or around it.

In an interview with the BBC after Mr Biden's not guilty plea, South Texas College of Law Professor Dru Stevenson said that charges for illegal gun possession usually result in a "slam dunk case".

"I don't think there's any question that [Mr Biden] will be convicted."

The third charge, regarding Mr Biden's alleged possession of a firearm while a drug user, is considered unusual, as it can be hard to prove someone is a drug user and has a gun.

"It's just really rare that they would go after someone and prosecute them for this," Prof Stevenson said. "But this is a high-profile person and there's been members of Congress demanding he be prosecuted."

Infamous laptop featured at trial

Among the most prominent pieces of evidence at the trial is the information on Mr Biden's infamous laptop, which has been the focus of intense media speculation and focus from conservative news outlets.

The laptop contained the text messages and pictures sent and received by Mr Biden around the date of the firearm purchase, which prosecutors argue are evidence of his guilt.

Mr Biden's own lawyers have argued that the computer was tampered with before it fell into the hands of investigators.

Erika Jensen, an FBI agent who was called as a witness to testify about the laptop's contents, confirmed its authenticity to jurors.

The special counsel appointed to oversee the probes into Hunter Biden, David Weiss, has said that the tampering argument is a "conspiracy theory" with "no supporting evidence".

The laptop has also been at the centre of unproven theories linking Mr Biden and his father to corruption, which they both deny.

Could he go to prison if convicted?

The two false statement charges each carry a maximum sentence of up to 10 years, while the third count is punishable by up to five years - meaning that Mr Biden could face up to 25 years in prison if convicted.

Actual sentences for federal crimes, however, are typically less than the maximum penalties specified by law.

If Mr Biden is convicted, the judge in the case will ultimately determine the sentence after considering sentencing guidelines and a variety of other legal factors.

Hunter Biden's other charges

In addition to the gun charges in Delaware, Mr Biden is facing separate federal charges in California over allegations that he evaded a tax assessment, failed to properly file and pay taxes and filed a fraudulent tax return.

Several months after the spectacular collapse of a plea deal that would address both sets of charges last year, Mr Biden also pleaded not guilty to the tax charges.

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