Capitol riot defendants raise more than $2 million from crowdfunding

Capitol riot defendants raise more than $2 million from crowdfunding
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Thousands of dollars are being donated by the day to help alleged US Capitol rioters fight in court.

“Free all 1/6 political prisoners!” wrote one donor, using a right-wing refrain about the people who have been charged with crimes for their role in the January 6 insurrection. The donor gave $25 to the crowdfunding page for Kyle Young, an Iowa man accused of assaulting Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone.

Another donor pledged $25, saying: “Even though I am in a small town in Canada, my heart is close.” Young’s site, set up by his family to raise money while the father of four remains incarcerated, has raked in more than $30,000.

Dozens of alleged Capitol rioters have tapped into this grassroots support, bringing in more than $2 million for legal fees and personal expenses, including some who have raised six-figure sums, according to CNN’s tally. Pleas for financial help for the defendants charged in the Capitol attack are posted on more than 100 crowdfunding sites.

The windfalls may help pay the bills, but they also could backfire in court. In at least two cases, the fundraising has been cited by prosecutors and a federal judge as a reason not to release defendants from confinement. And for some of the defendants, the donations could lead to them losing access to free public defenders.

The massive fundraising haul is emblematic of a movement — supported by some Republican leaders in Congress — to legitimize a violent assault on American democracy by spreading a false narrative that the events of January 6 were merely an individual expression of political opinions.

Many of the crowdfunding campaigns are based on narratives of martyrdom — proclamations of innocence next to claims of persecution against “patriots.” The rhetoric echoes then-President Donald Trump referring to “great patriots” upset about the election on Twitter the day of the attack.

Audrey James has taken her husband’s legal fight to the GiveSendGo crowdfunding site. Joshua James is the alleged Oath Keeper from Alabama who, according to his wife, was paid $1,500 to provide security, including at a “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6.

“Joshua is now facing unexpected and unjust legal battles, and we have created this fundraiser as a way to help with the burden,” Audrey James wrote on the site, posting more than a dozen pictures of their family, including three kids. “Thankfully, Joshua’s retirement benefits will help with the monthly bills … but not the magnitude of legal fees this battle will require.”

James’ page now lists donations amounting to almost $200,000.

Most of the crowdfunding campaigns are on GiveSendGo, a site that promotes itself as the “#1 Free Christian Crowdfunding Site.” GiveSendGo has hosted fundraising efforts by far-right extremists and their supporters, including one for Kyle Rittenhouse that raised more than $500,000. Rittenhouse is the teenager accused of killing two people at a protest in the aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Another site being used to collect money for at least a half dozen defendants is Our Freedom Funding, which describes itself as the “#1 unbiased platform on the internet!”

Jacob Wells, the co-founder of GiveSendGo, told CNN that the platform aims to “not side with the right or the left, but point people back to Jesus.” Our Freedom Funding did not respond to a request for comment.

Fundraising backlash

The fundraising frenzy has resulted in six-figure sums for several Capitol riot defendants, and that has not gone unnoticed in their criminal cases.

Earlier this summer, the Justice Department opposed a request from Joshua James to be released from home confinement.

“James argues that he was the ‘primary breadwinner for his family’ and ‘has been unable to earn any income since his arrest,’ ” prosecutors said in a court filing. “Yet, James’s spouse started soliciting donations on the internet for James and his family within days of his arrest.”

Prosecutors said the campaign is raising an average of $8,021.58 a week and that the James family “appears to be supporting themselves without needing to let James out of home detention.”

In three separate bids to get out of jail by the nicknamed QAnon Shaman Jacob Chansley, federal judges have referenced the potential for quick crowdfunding efforts as part of the reason it was too risky to release him.

District Judge Royce Lamberth, in a July decision to keep Chansley detained, cited the defendant’s ability to “quickly raise large sums of money for travel through non-traditional sources” and to travel long distances using “untraceable methods.”

“No conditions of release would reasonably assure his appearance as required,” Lamberth wrote.

Fast, six-figure fundraising

Eight defendants facing federal charges have raised at least $100,000, according to CNN’s analysis.

The right-wing Infowars talk show host Owen Shroyer has netted the most rapid gains. Shroyer was charged in August in connection with the Capitol attack, and days later his self-created fundraising campaign on GiveSendGo totaled more than $230,000.

Two days after the charges were filed, Shroyer posted a video on the conspiracy website Infowars, arguing that he and his crew had never entered the Capitol or crossed any barricades as they traversed the Capitol grounds.

“I am an innocent man. … The claims that they’re making are just completely untrue,” Shroyer said in the video, even though there is footage of him on Capitol grounds on January 6.

Shroyer’s crowdfunding page lists dozens of low-dollar donors with screen names like “Disgusted American,” “Tyranny under shield of law shall not stand” and “Patriotic American from Cleveland,” who have pledged an average of $10 to $20.

Legal assistance in jeopardy?

More than 30 of the defendants who have crowdfunding efforts also have been assigned federal public defenders paid for by the government, according to CNN’s count.

Under federal court guidelines, a defendant is eligible for appointment of free counsel “if his or her net financial resources and income are insufficient to enable the offender to obtain qualified counsel.” The determination is ultimately made by a US magistrate judge during one of the defendant’s first hearings.

The influx of cash online could require a change in their legal representation, said Carissa Byrne Hessick, a criminal law professor at the University of North Carolina and director of the Prosecutors and Politics Project.

“If the US attorney’s office wanted to come in and file a motion to say that the economic circumstances of these people have changed so that they should no longer get a public defender, I think that the court would take that seriously,” Hessick said. “It’s the same as if someone has a public defender and suddenly won the lottery.”

Traci Sunstrum, from the Buffalo, New York, area, concluded that a public defender wouldn’t suffice for her legal fight against what she called the “corrupt, over-reaching legal system,” according to her crowdfunding page on GiveSendGo. So she amped up her fundraising to be able to hire her own private defense counsel.

“A good attorney isn’t going to be inexpensive. And we all need good attorneys willing to fight this battle,” Sunstrum said on her page when announcing recently that she was raising her fundraising goal to $35,000.

Sunstrum was arrested in May after an anonymous tipster to the FBI reported that she could be seen inside the Capitol via a Facebook Live stream, according to court filings.

Her fundraising site showcases a picture of her standing next to a cardboard cutout of Trump. Her words are reminiscent of the former President.

“I am a proud American, daughter and granddaughter to 3 deceased veterans,” Sunstrum writes on her crowdfunding page. “It would break their hearts to see what’s happening to our beautiful country. It’s up to us to stand up and fight for our freedoms, or watch them taken away by a system of tyranny.”

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