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Hundreds of crimes, little punishment: Inside the sentences since the Capitol attack

POLITICO logo POLITICO 1/4/2022 By Nick Niedzwiadek
Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. © Jon Cherry/Getty Images Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

This is a living database that will be updated weekly with new sentencing information, analysis and data throughout 2022.

More than 150 people have pleaded guilty to storming the Capitol on Jan. 6, but relatively few defendants have received prison time for their role in the insurrection.

A POLITICO analysis of every sentence to date in the Capitol riot shows that judges have been wary about imposing long prison terms except when violence, or the threat of it, was involved. A little over half of defendants who have pleaded guilty are still awaiting sentencing, and some of the most serious cases of violence against police officers are still awaiting their fate, so the length of prison time for the most serious offenders may change. See the full database

Additional sentencing hearings are booked for the early months of this year, and many more are expected to be added as defendants reach plea deals with prosecutors or are found guilty at trial.

There are more than 700 people who have been arrested for crimes tied to the assault on the Capitol and investigations are still ongoing, and roughly one-tenth of those — 71 — have been sentenced as of Jan. 1.

While these numbers represent just a fraction of the criminal cases to date, they have already become a template for future sentences — a foundation that is likely to solidify further as more and more cases reach their conclusion.

Here are several takeaways from the past year of sentences.

Judges aren't enamored with the low-level plea deals

The bulk of the sentences to date have been for relatively low-level offenses. The most common charge pleaded to, by far, is illegally parading or demonstrating in the Capitol, a misdemeanor, but judges have repeatedly aired their thoughts on the gravity of the damage done by members of the mob on Jan. 6.

“It brought the government to a screeching halt that day,” Judge Royce Lamberth, said during the sentencing of Frank Scavo in November. “The consequence to the nation … has to be weighed in the balance.”

On several occasions judges have expressed misgivings about whether the actual criminal charge matches the misdeeds of the defendant. Beryl Howell, the D.C. court’s chief judge, in late October said that prosecutors’ approach is “almost schizophrenic” given the cavernous gap between their characterization of the insurrection and the terms of the plea deals they’re negotiating.

“The rioters attacking the Capitol on Jan. 6 were not mere trespassers engaging in protected First Amendment conduct or protests,” Howell said during that sentencing, during which Jack Griffith of Tennessee received three years of probation. “They were not merely disorderly, as countless videos show the mob that attacked the Capitol was violent. Everyone participating in the mob contributed to that violence.”

Prison time is rare — so far

Of the 70-plus people who have been sentenced, fewer than half have received prison time for their actions in the days surrounding the riot.

That’s in part because many of those sentenced so far were only convicted of illegally entering the Capitol building, and were not involved in the more violent and destructive aspects related to storming the building. Only seven defendants have been sentenced for felony charges, as of late December.

Among those defendants who are being incarcerated, their stints in prison are often somewhat brief. The median prison sentence to date is 45 days.

That early trend is likely to continue going forward, though it could evolve somewhat as prosecutors proceed with cases against those accused of more serious — and complex — offenses. There are more than a dozen defendants who have pleaded guilty to felonies who have yet to be sentenced — including some who have been cooperating with investigators. So some of the future sentences could be harsher.

The blue is a red line


Video: One year later: Recap of events since Jan. 6 attack (NBC News)

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While prison sentences have been light for most of the defendants, judges have shown little tolerance for those who attacked law enforcement that day.

Robert Palmer was sentenced in mid-December to more than five years — 63 months — in prison after he admitted to swinging a pole at police and throwing a fire extinguisher and wooden plank at officers. Palmer’s prison sentence is more than a year-and-a-half longer than any other defendant.

Three others have received prison sentences in excess of 40 months, two of whom — Devlyn Thompson and Scott Fairlamb — also admitted to assaulting officers. The third person with such a sentence was Jacob Chansley, who did not engage in violence but whose visage as the “QAnon shaman” became an indelible symbol of Jan. 6.

Another count to watch: felony threat charges. Cleveland Meredith Jr. received a 28-month prison sentence and Troy Smocks was sentenced to 14 months in jail after the two men separately pleaded guilty to that offense.

Many defendants made menacing or threatening comments on social media and elsewhere in the days around Jan. 6, though prosecutors in both cases argued there were unique factors that distinguished the two men criminally from other rioters.

Judges signal willingness to get tougher — if the government pushes for it

Judges have a broad amount of latitude to impose sentences as they see fit. However they typically rely on a combination of standardized guidelines and recommendations solicited from both the prosecution and defense, in addition to their own intuition, to formulate a sentence.

For instance, judges can decide not to impose any prison time in spite of the prosecution's request to do so — which has happened in several Jan. 6 criminal cases.

But judges can also go beyond the government’s recommendation and levy an even harsher sentence, though doing so can invite additional scrutiny upon appeal. Many judges prefer to exercise this authority on only the rarest of occasions.

During the October sentencing of Maryland man Andrew Bennett, Judge James Boasberg repeatedly pressed prosecutors on why they were not seeking jail time in his case — and indicated he likely would have granted it had they did. Boasberg referenced his disbelief in that case during a December sentencing in which the government likewise did not seek incarceration for Gary Edwards, who illegally entered the Capitol and the office of Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

“There is a strong argument that anyone who was there that day deserves jail,” Boasberg said.

But, “my general policy is not to give more time than the government asks,” he said at another point.

One notable exception to this deference has been Judge Tanya Chutkan, who has exceeded the government recommendation more than half a dozen times, as of late December. No other judge on the D.C. bench has done so more than once over that same period.

“There have to be consequences for participating in an attempted violent overthrow of the government beyond sitting at home,” Chutkan said in October during one such sentencing in which she ordered a man to 45 days in prison, even though the government only sought three months home confinement.

“The country is watching to see what the consequences are for something that has not ever happened in the history of this country before.”

Key

Charges: This list of offenses covers only those a defendant pleaded guilty to, or was found guilty of at trial. The vast majority of defendants were initially charged with additional counts that were either dropped by prosecutors as part of a plea deal or otherwise not part of their conviction.

Incarceration: Unless otherwise noted, sentences included refer to prison time ordered by the presiding judge. This column also notes defendants whose terms were effectively covered by time served in custody while their case was ongoing. (For example, Michael Curzio and Karl Dresch.)

Probation/supervised release: These two categories are functionally similar, though supervised release is typically in conjunction with a prison term. Violating the terms of either can result in additional punishment, including incarceration.

Fines: This column includes financial penalties imposed as part of an individual’s sentence.

Many defendants are being required to pay $500 in restitution for damage done to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as a condition of their misdemeanor plea agreement. This table excludes that charge, as well as other lesser sums. Judges have waived, or declined to impose, fines on some less-affluent defendants during their sentencing.

Community service: Defendants typically have a set period of time to complete this condition.

Government recommendation: A summary of what sentencing terms the government sought ahead of the judge’s determination. The defense files a similar brief that is typically far more lenient than what prosecutors request.

Judges are not required to follow the recommendations made by either side, though they typically use them to calibrate a given sentence.

Judge: Name of the person who presided over an individual’s case and handled the sentencing.

Judge appointed by: Name of the president who appointed the judge to the federal court in D.C.

An asterisk (*) designates a senior status judge. Senior judges have a reduced caseload compared to their non-senior counterparts, but otherwise have the same authority as other judges.

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