WASHINGTON (AP) — While sentencing a North Carolina man to prison for his role in the U.S. Capitol riot, a Republican-appointed judge issued a stark warning: Efforts to portray the mob of Donald Trump’s supporters as heroes and play down the violence that unfolded on Jan. 6, 2021, pose a serious threat to the nation.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth condemned the depiction by Trump and Republican allies of Jan. 6 defendants as “political prisoners” and “hostages.” Lamberth also denounced attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the justice system for punishing rioters who broke the law when they invaded the Capitol.
“In my 37 years on the bench, I cannot recall a time when such meritless justifications of criminal activity have gone mainstream,” Lamberth, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, wrote in a recent ruling. The judge added he “fears that such destructive, misguided rhetoric could presage further danger to our country.”
As Trump floats potential pardons for rioters if he returns to the White House, judges overseeing the more than 1,200 Jan. 6 criminal cases in Washington’s federal court are using their platform to try to set the record straight concerning distortions about an attack that was broadcast live on television. A growing number of defendants appear to be embracing rhetoric spread by Trump, giving defiant speeches in court, repeating his false election claims and portraying themselves as patriots.
During a recent court hearing, Proud Boys member Marc Bru repeatedly insulted and interrupted the judge, who ultimately sentenced him to six years in prison. “You can give me 100 years and I’d do it all over again,” Bru said.
At least two other rioters shouted “Trump won!” in court after receiving their punishment.
Some people charged in the riot are pinning their hopes on a Trump victory in November.
Rachel Marie Powell, a Pennsylvania woman who was sentenced to nearly five years in prison for smashing a Capitol window, told a CNN reporter that the 2024 presidential election is “like life or death” for her. She said she believes she will get out of prison if Trump is elected.
The rhetoric resonates with the strangers who donate money to Jan. 6 defendant’s online campaigns, but it isn’t earning them any sympathy from the judges. Judges appointed by presidents from both political parties have described the riot as an affront to democracy and they repeatedly have admonished defendants for not showing true remorse or casting themselves as victims.
Over more than three years, judges have watched hours of video showing members of the mob violently shoving past overwhelmed officers, shattering windows, attacking police with things such as flagpoles and pepper spray and threatening violence against lawmakers. In court hearings, officers have described being beaten, threatened and scared for their lives as they tried to defend the Capitol.
Before sentencing a Kentucky man, who already had a long criminal record, to 14 years in prison for attacking police with pepper spray and a chair, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta admonished the man for propagating “the lie that what’s happening here in Washington, D.C., is unfair and unjust.”
“You are not a political prisoner,” Mehta, who was nominated by President Barack Obama told Peter Schwartz. “You’re not Alexei Navalny,” the judge said referring to the imprisoned Russian opposition leader. “You’re not somebody who is standing up against injustice, who’s fighting against an autocratic regime. … You’re somebody who decided to take the day into his own hands, much in the same way that you have used your hands against others for much of your life.”
Lamberth’s scathing remarks came in the case of James Little, a North Carolina man who was not accused of any violence or destruction during the riot and pleaded guilty only to a misdemeanor offense. Lamberth didn’t name the people responsible for what the judge called “shameless” attempts to rewrite history. But Trump has closely aligned himself with rioters during his presidential campaign. He has described them as “hostages,” called for their release from jail and pledged to pardon a large portion of them if he wins the White House in November.
Roughly 750 people charged with federal crimes in the riot have pleaded guilty and more than 100 others have been convicted at trial. Many rioters were charged only with misdemeanor offenses akin to trespassing while others face serious felonies such as assault or seditious conspiracy. Of those who have been sentenced, roughly two-thirds have received some time behind bars, with terms ranging from a few days of intermittent confinement to 22 years in prison, according to data compiled by The Associated Press.
Lamberth had originally sentenced Little in 2022 to 60 days behind bars, followed by three years of probation. But Washington’s federal appeals court sided with Little on appeal, ruling he could not be sentenced to both prison time and probation. When Little’s case returned to Lamberth’s court, the judge resentenced him to 150 days — with credit for time already served in jail and on probation — citing the man’s claims of persecution and efforts to downplay the Jan. 6 attack.
“Little cannot bring himself to admit that he did the wrong thing, although he came close today,” Judge Lamberth wrote. “So it is up to the court to tell the public the truth: Mr. Little’s actions, and the actions of others who broke the law on Jan. 6, were wrong. The court does not expect its remarks to fully stem the tide of falsehoods. But I hope a little truth will go a long way.”
An attorney for Little declined to comment on Lamberth’s remarks.
In other cases, judges have said their sentence must send a message when rioters have promoted the notion that they are being unfairly prosecuted for their political views. U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper told Richard “Bigo” Barnett, the Arkansas man who propped his feet on a desk in then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in a widely circulated photo, that he seemed to enjoy the notoriety of becoming one of the faces of the Jan. 6 attack.
“You have made yourself one of the faces of J6 not just through that photo but using your platform and your notoriety to peddle the misconception that you and other J6ers are somehow political prisoners who are being persecuted for your beliefs as opposed to your conduct on Jan. 6,” Cooper, an Obama appointee, told Barnett before sentencing him to more than four years in prison.
“So to all those folks that follow Bigo, they need to know that the actions of Jan. 6 cannot be repeated without some serious repercussions,” the judge said.
Richer reported from Boston.