WASHINGTON — Florida business owner Robert Palmer cheered on the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 before he joined the fray. Screaming obscenities, he hurled a wooden plank and a fire extinguisher at police officers trying to ward off the mob.
Nearly a year later, Palmer fought back tears when he faced the federal judge who sentenced him to more than five years in prison. He said he was “horrified, absolutely devastated” by what he had done.
“I’m just so ashamed that I was a part of that,” Palmer told U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan on Dec. 17 before she gave him the longest prison term for any rioter so far.
Judges are hearing tearful expressions of remorse — and a litany of excuses — from rioters paying a price for joining the Jan. 6 insurrection, even as others try to play down the deadly attack on a seat of American democracy.
The Justice Department’s investigation of the riot has now entered the punishment phase. So far, 71 people have been sentenced for riot-related crimes. They include a company CEO, an architect, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, a gym owner, a former Houston police officer and a University of Kentucky student. Many rioters have said they lost jobs and friends after their mob of Donald Trump loyalists disrupted the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory.
Fifty-six of the 71 pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building. Most of them were sentenced to home confinement or jail terms measured in weeks or months, according to an Associated Press tally of every sentencing. But rioters who assaulted police officers have gotten years behind bars.
With hundreds of people charged, the Justice Department has taken heat for not coming down harder on some rioters, and it has failed to charge anyone with sedition or treason despite hints early on in the investigation. But lower-level cases tend to be easier to prosecute and typically get resolved before more complex ones.
At least 165 people have pleaded guilty so far, mostly to crimes punishable by a maximum sentence of six months. There are dozens of cases involving more serious offenses still moving through the system. More than 220 people have been charged with assaulting or impeding law enforcement officers at the Capitol, according to the Justice Department. Since November, three of them have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from more than three years to just over five years.
More than 700 people have been charged so far and the FBI is still looking for more. Among the most serious charges are against far-right extremist group members accused of plotting attacks to obstruct Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election. Their cases haven’t yet gone to trial.
The rioters’ refrains before the judges are often the same: They were caught up in the moment or just following the crowd into the Capitol. They didn’t see any violence or vandalism. They thought police were letting them enter the building. They insist they went there to peacefully protest.
Their excuses often implode in the face of overwhelming evidence. Thousands of hours of videos from surveillance cameras, mobile phones and police body cameras captured them reveling in the mayhem. Many boasted about their crimes on social media in the days after the deadly attack.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson said then-President Trump’s incendiary speech on Jan. 6 “stoked the flames of fear and discontent.” But she told Russell James Peterson, a rioter from Pennsylvania, that he “walked there on his own two feet” and must bear responsibility for his own actions.
“No one was swept away to the Capitol. No one was carried. The rioters were adults,” Jackson said before sentencing Peterson to 30 days’ imprisonment.
Eighteen judges, including four nominated by Trump, have sentenced the 71 defendants. Thirty-one defendants have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment or to jail time already served, including 22 who received sentences of three months or less, according to the AP tally. An additional 18 defendants have been sentenced to home confinement. The remaining 22 have gotten probation without house arrest.
A seemingly genuine display of contrition before or during a sentencing hearing can help a rioter avoid a jail cell. The judges often cite remorse as a key factor in deciding sentences.
But Chutkan told Palmer that she couldn’t tell if his remorse was genuine.
“I can’t look into your heart or your mind,” the judge said. “The way you conduct your life after this case is going to speak volumes about whether you are truly remorseful.”
Dona Sue Bissey ’s case is one of only six in which prosecutors agreed to recommend probation without home detention. But instead, Chutkan sentenced her to 14 days in jail. The judge questioned whether Bissey, 53, of Indiana, truly was remorseful because she bragged about her participation in the riot.
“There must be consequences for taking part, even a small part, in a mass attempt to stop the certification of the presidential election and prevent the transfer of power,” said Chutkan, who was nominated by President Barack Obama.
Four rioters sentenced by Chief Judge Beryl Howell received three months of home detention after prosecutors recommended jail terms. Howell, also an Obama nominee, questioned the Justice Department’s “muddled approach” in resolving cases with misdemeanor pleas despite using “scorching strong language” to describe rioters’ actions.
Anthony Mariotto, a Florida man who was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine, said he “got caught up in the moment” but knows he broke the law by entering the Capitol.
“I was hoping that they would just pause the election,” Mariotto said during his December sentencing. “I wish Joe Biden, President Biden, would have won by billions of votes. None of this would have happened.”
Judge Reggie Walton dryly replied, “He won by 7 million.”