The Government's Case Against Nonviolent January 6 Defendants Is Purely Political

Written by Hudson Crozier

Since the attack on the U.S. Capitol by Donald Trump supporters on January 6, 2021, over 900 people have been arrested and charged in what may be the biggest criminal investigation in U.S. history. Over 380 have pled guilty for their alleged roles in the incident, and many have already been sentenced.

Many of these defendants have been accused of violent, threatening, or conspiratorial behavior that day. However, federal courts have repeatedly equated peaceful protesters with rioters and domestic terrorists.

Additionally, defendants who go to trial have been denied their constitutional right to an impartial jury. Juries for January 6 cases consist entirely of Washington, D.C., residents, over 90% of which voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020.

Polling from last January that was presented in court by defense attorneys revealed that 95% of D.C. residents are either "somewhat familiar" or "very familiar" with the Capitol attack. Fifty-four percent get their knowledge of the event from national news sources, many of which have lied or manipulated details of the event. Chief among the lies is that the attack was a sophisticated attempt at a "coup" or "insurrection" when no proof has been found of a giant coordinated plot that would fit those lofty standards under U.S. law. Nevertheless, 73% of D.C. residents agree that "any individual who was inside the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 should be convicted of insurrection." Judges have denied at least a dozen requests to move defendants' trials out of D.C.

Through an assortment of politically zealous prosecutors, judges, and jurors, these Trump supporters have the system rigged against them.

"Obstruction of an official proceeding"

For nonviolent January 6 defendants, some of the most common charges are trespassing misdemeanors like “disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building” or “parading, picketing, or demonstrating in a Capitol building.” Trump supporter Matthew Martin, who had been allowed into the Capitol by police during the unrest, faced four such charges.

Court evidence determined that Martin, who spent about 10 minutes in the Capitol building, passively observed activity and did not engage in violent or disruptive behavior. Based on the evidence, prosecutors failed to prove that Martin knowingly engaged in illegal activity. As traditional law requires that guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden dropped all charges against him.

Martin's has been the only reported acquittal in any January 6 case. Other cases with nearly identical circumstances have been treated differently based on a loaded felony charge: obstruction of an official proceeding. While this charge has been used more appropriately against those who invaded the Capitol during the Electoral College vote, other cases show the government making no clear distinction between rioters and mere protesters.

After attending Trump's speech, New Jersey Army reservist Timothy Hale entered the Capitol through an open set of doors. He was unarmed and did not threaten or assault anyone. Aside from his vague rhetoric about a "revolution" and verbal harassment, he interacted peacefully with police officers who made no effort to arrest him. After about 40 minutes, he left.

Along with four misdemeanors, Hale was charged with obstruction of an official proceeding. A jury found him guilty on all counts, and he will be sentenced in September by Judge McFadden. Hale had no prior criminal record.

After the verdict, jurors for Hale's case told CNN that in order to find a defendant guilty of the obstruction count, they had to determine that he knowingly "traveled to D.C. with the intent to stop the certification of the Electoral College." When Hale testified that he didn't know Congress met in the precise building he had entered, several jurors reportedly rolled their eyes at him. A juror later told the press that the assertion was ''hard to believe,'' referencing Trump's speech at the Capitol: "After listening to the former president, and he directed you to do what you did, it's hard to believe you didn't know where the building was.'' As Upward News previously covered, Trump told his supporters to ''remain peaceful'' in his speech and did not call for any illegal obstruction of the vote count.

Lastly, a Department of Justice press release falsely labeled Hale as a "rioter," a term that inherently refers to acts of violence under the law.

Guilty by association

The "obstruction of an official proceeding" statute was added to U.S. law in 2002 after a famous corporate scandal involving destroyed documents.

Likewise, the statute was initially meant to address crimes that would "corruptly" influence a court proceeding, such as witness tampering. Applying it to physically or verbally disruptive actions during a proceeding—as the Justice Department is doing regarding pro-Trump protesters—is unprecedented. In many January 6 cases, the reasoning behind the charge is so arbitrary that it lacks any clear connection to the circumstances of the Capitol incident.

As Trump was giving his speech miles away that day, rioters overwhelmed police and breached the Capitol building. As they made their way through the building, the House and Senate began to evacuate simultaneously. Many of these initial rioters have been charged with felony obstruction. The majority of Trump supporters arrived later, and police allowed them inside to protest. Officers were heard making remarks like, ''I disagree with it, but I respect what you're trying to do.''

In the case of Matthew Martin, the fact that the police allowed peaceful protesters like him inside made it “plausible” to Judge McFadden that he wasn't knowingly breaking the law. That, along with Martin's mild behavior, meant that he couldn't be proven guilty of even misdemeanors. While Hale was also compliant with police, federal prosecutors in his case considered him guilty of the same obstruction charge given to rioters who fought their way into the Capitol and caused members of Congress to evacuate. The politicized jury accepted that characterization.

Based on this principle, the government seeks to hold protesters responsible for what it considers a "collective threat to democracy,” settling for nothing less than felony convictions that strip them of multiple rights as American citizens. Rather than dismissing the charge, overzealous judges are eager to punish accordingly. This became apparent from the first sentencing of a January 6 defendant: Paul Hodgkins.

A middle-class worker from Florida, Hodgkins entered the Capitol building several minutes after Congress had adjourned. He was inside the vacated Senate chamber for a little over 20 minutes, planted a Trump flag, took some selfies, and left. He was arrested the month after and eventually pled guilty to felony obstruction.

''I am truly regretful for my actions and the way this country I love has been hurt,'' he told Judge Randolph Moss. Hodgkins had no prior criminal record, and the defense asked for probation as punishment.

The prosecution, however, baselessly referred to Hodgkins' actions as "domestic terrorism" to encourage an 18-month sentence. ''The need to deter others is especially strong in cases of domestic terrorism,'' they wrote, adding that terrorists ''are unique among criminals in the likelihood of recidivism, the difficulty of rehabilitation, and the need for incapacitation.''

In court, Judge Moss made impassioned references to ''democracy'' when discussing the Capitol incident, arguing that Hodgkins had ''actively and intentionally'' participated in threatening it. He sentenced Hodgkins to eight months in prison and two years of supervised release. Hodgkins was also fined $2,000 to help pay for the overall damage done to the Capitol by others.

An intimidating effect

After over a year of arrests, investigations, indictments, and sentences, federal courts have developed a reputation for ruthlessness toward January 6 defendants. Judges have repeatedly been complicit with the government's distortion of the law, and jurors often won’t grant a presumption of innocence. Courts allowing preconceived narratives of the Capitol “insurrection” to influence trials makes some defendants feel that there is no way out.

About a half-hour after Congress had officially recessed, Pennsylvania Trump supporter Matthew Perna was allowed into the Capitol with a crowd of others. Court evidence determined that he behaved peacefully and left after 20 minutes or so. Weeks later, he found himself on the FBI's most wanted list, turned himself in, and was swiftly indicted on several misdemeanors and felony obstruction. He eventually pled guilty on all counts last December. He had no prior criminal record.

Perna's sentencing was repeatedly delayed as the prosecution wanted to ensure that its recommendation for his punishment would be proportional to other January 6 cases. ''While every case and every defendant are different,'' U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves wrote, ''the Government is attempting to ensure that similarly situated January 6 defendants are treated in the same manner.'' Knowing the pattern of treatment for ''terrorists'' like him, Perna expected a lengthy prison sentence.

According to Perna’s lawyer, the prosecution began seeking sentencing enhancements for violent acts that weren't related to his charges. They based their strategy on evidence that they planned to present after the fact, a brief video clip showing what appears to be Perna throwing a metal pole onto the floor of the Capitol building. The enhancements, if accepted, would have brought a sentence of at least 41 months.

Combined with the public shaming and isolation he endured in his hometown, the fear of facing the court's punishment drove Perna to commit suicide last February.

Timothy Hale, Paul Hodgkins, and Matthew Perna are a few out of the hundreds of protesters indicted on the government's repurposed felony obstruction charge. Their cases show the standard for how many January 6 defendants are treated by our politicized justice system.