The chief judge in Washington, DC’s federal court laid into the Justice Department on Thursday for its “schizophrenic” and “puzzling” approach to January 6 cases, saying judges’ hands are tied from giving hefty punishments because prosecutors keep offering misdemeanor deals to rioters.
Calling the insurrection the “crime of the century,” Chief Judge Beryl Howell of DC District Court said prosecutors’ charging decisions and their suggested punishments for some nonviolent rioters are “baffling” and “peculiar.”
Prosecutors have used scorching language to condemn the attack on democracy, while simultaneously letting nonviolent rioters plead guilty to a petty misdemeanor and recommending probation in many cases.
At a sentencing hearing for a rioter on Thursday, Howell repeated criticism that prosecutors are only asking each misdemeanor rioter to pay a paltry $500 to fix damages to the US Capitol, even though tens of millions of dollars were spent on repairs and security in the wake of the insurrection.
“This is a muddled approach by the government,” Howell said. “No wonder parts of this public are confused about whether what happened on January 6 at the Capitol was simply a petty offense of trespassing, with some disorderliness, or was shocking criminal conduct that posed a grave threat to our democratic norms.”
As the chief judge of the federal court handling the 650-plus Capitol riot cases, Howell is in an influential position, and her rulings and her bully pulpit could have an impact on other judges. She excoriated the rioters early on, and has repeatedly pressed prosecutors on their approach to the cases, including the plea deals.
Her comments come shortly after Attorney General Merrick Garland faced tough questioning on Capitol Hill about the Justice Department’s handling of January 6 cases. At recent congressional hearings, many Democrats have criticized the department for what they consider soft treatment of the rioters, while Republicans have complained that prosecutors are going too far.
‘Not mere trespassers’
Thursday’s hearing was in the case of Jack Griffith of Tennessee, who gained attention for creating a video game in which former President Donald Trump targets Democrats.
Prosecutors asked Howell to send Griffith to jail for three months — a short stint behind bars, but among the most aggressive sentencing requests for a rioter who pleaded to a misdemeanor. The specific crime of illegally protesting in the Capitol carries a maximum of six months in jail.
Instead, Howell sentenced Griffith to three months of house arrest and three years of probation. She said she was constrained by the fact that Griffith was allowed to plead guilty to a low-level crime, and because prosecutors recommending probation for other rioters in comparable situations. (Federal judges are required by law to give similar punishments in similar cases.)
“The offense itself is a petty offense, but the nature and circumstances of the offense are far more serious,” Howell said at the hearing. “The government has essentially tied the sentencing judge’s hands on restitution (and) on clear sentencing options that are normally available.”
The Justice Department has offered misdemeanor plea deals to dozens of rioters who aren’t accused of violence — an approach that prosecutors have said was approved by senior department officials. Prosecutors are still pursuing felony cases against hundreds of defendants who allegedly attacked police, trashed the Capitol complex or conspired with far-right extremist groups. Unlike the misdemeanor cases, these rioters could end up spending years in prison.
But after rioters committed the “crime of the century,” Howell said Thursday prosecutors are letting them plead guilty to “the most minimal of federal charges, a class B misdemeanor petty offense.”
“Do you appreciate my puzzlement and concern?” she asked the prosecutors.
“The rioters were not mere trespassers. … They were not merely disorderly,” Howell later said, blasting prosecutors for using that phrase to describe the rioters in some of their recent filings.
I helped an ‘attempted coup,’ rioter says
Griffith and his attorney prevailed in their effort to avoid jail, but Howell rebuked their approach.
His attorney, H. Heather Shaner, blamed Griffith’s ADHD for his excited reaction to the violence on January 6. And in social media posts after January 6, Griffith blamed the media for riling up Trump supporters and causing the insurrection. Howell used these words against Griffith and slammed him for trying to avoid responsibility for a heinous attack on American democracy.
The defendant struck a more contrite tone in his comments during the hearing on Thursday.
“The fact that I was smiling and cheering on while our republic was under attack is truly disgraceful,” Griffith said. “Without my presence, I know there would not have been an attempted coup. And I know that I added onto that. and I apologize for that. … I know there were people watching around the world, in terror, as it happened.”
He said he recently avoided getting evicted from his home and found a girlfriend who isn’t into politics, which will steer him away from the “extremist” views that “muddled my mind” in 2020.
“I am ashamed that my personal growth … has put our country in danger,” he told the judge.
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