More than two years after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, prosecutors have now charged more than 1,000 people in relation to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack.
These hundreds of people encompass "the most wide-ranging investigation" in the history of the Justice Department. NPR has been tracking every case related to the attack as they move through the court system, from the initial arrest to sentencing.
How much work has this been for the federal government?
The investigation has been a massive undertaking, both in its scope and cost. Every U.S. Attorney's office has been involved, as well as every FBI field office. As part of the $1.7 trillion government spending package passed in December, $2.6 billion was allocated to the U.S. Attorneys, in part to support the Jan. 6 prosecutions.
In order to bring charges, the Justice Department is sifting through mountains of evidence and chasing down tips. The FBI says it has been reviewing almost four million files, including 30,000 video files. Those include police body-worn camera footage from five different law enforcement agencies, surveillance footage from the building, as well as the many videos on seized cell phones and posted online.
"For context, these files amount to over nine terabytes of information and would take at least 361 days to view continuously," the FBI reported when it marked the attack's second anniversary.
The sprawling investigation has already doubled the FBI's domestic terrorism caseload, yet the Justice Department has indicated that it believes around 2,000 people were involved in the attack. In other words, the department may not even be halfway through its investigation.
Who are the 1,000 alleged rioters?
The defendants – who came from nearly all 50 states – are a tough group to generalize. Most of them appear to be white men, though not entirely.
About 15% of the defendants have a background in the military or law enforcement. For context, about 7% of the U.S. population are military veterans. Police and sheriff patrol officers make up less than 1% of the population.
The difficulty in categorizing this group has caused some experts concern. One in four defendants are facing assault or some other violent charge, yet the vast majority of people facing charges – nearly 85% – do not have any known connection to extremist groups.
"It's not like they all had previous convictions for violence or this kind of long running history of violent assault against political individuals or law enforcement. They were just willing to commit violence on that day," says Jon Lewis, a research fellow at George Washington University's Program on Extremism. "They truly thought the election was stolen. They truly thought that was their day in the sun, that they were the patriots. They were the heroes of that story."
"It's not just the scary Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. Communities are learning that one does not have to be so far gone, and such a follower of extremist movements, to still be animated to some pretty dangerous efforts to undermine our democracy," adds Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. "Does that mean extremism is becoming mainstream, which sounds a little bit like an oxymoron? Does it mean that the in-roads, the agendas, of those who are the farthest, most extreme, are now becoming normalized? I think the answer is yes."
An overview of the cases so far
- Number of people charged, federal: 994
- Number of people charged, D.C.: 24
- Number of people who have pleaded guilty: 541
- Number of individuals who have had jury or bench trials: 67
- The number convicted on all charges: 42
- The number acquitted on all charges: 1
- The number with mixed verdicts: 24
- Number of people sentenced: 445
- The percentage of people sentenced who have received prison time: 58
- The median sentence for those who received prison time, in days: 60
- The prison sentence range: 7 days to 10 years
- The number of cases dismissed: 5 federal; 8 D.C. Superior Court
What are the judges saying to the defendants at sentencing?
Nearly all of these cases are being heard by 21 judges in the federal district court in Washington, D.C. They were appointed by presidents from both parties from President Reagan to President Biden.
It's difficult to compare the rulings of judges because every case is different, but there are common themes in what the judges have been saying to the defendants before them. For one, the judges aren't looking at these crimes in isolation. The significance of Jan. 6, as an attempt to undermine democracy, is playing a part.
"The defendant was an active participant in a mob assault on our core democratic values and our cherished institution," Judge John Bates, appointed by President George W. Bush, told Thomas Fee. "I cannot ignore that, cannot pull this misdemeanor out of that context."
"What happened that day was, in some ways, as serious... an offense as there can be, given that it threatened the peaceful transfer of power from one president to another. The damage that was done on that day was both tangible and intangible," Judge Timothy Kelly, appointed by President Trump, said while sentencing Tam Dinh Pham. "Without people like you, the collective force of the mob that day would not have been the same."
The judges have also emphasized that being "sucked into a vortex of misinformation" does not absolve someone of their actions.
"No one was swept away to the Capitol. No one was carried. The rioters were adults," Judge Amy Berman Jackson, appointed by President Obama, told Russell James Peterson. "This defendant, like hundreds of others, walked there on his own two feet and he bears responsibility for his own actions. There may be others who bear greater responsibility and who also must be held accountable, but this is not their day in court, it is yours."
Judges are also interested in accountability — and whether or not a defendant has made an authentic expression of remorse. That seems to be in part because some of the judges do worry this could happen again.
"Every day we're hearing about reports of anti-democratic factions of people plotting violence, the potential threat of violence, in 2024," Judge Tanya Chutkan, appointed by Obama, said while sentencing Robert Palmer. "It has to be made clear that trying to violently overthrow the government, trying to stop the peaceful transition of power and assaulting law enforcement officers in that effort is going to be met with absolutely certain punishment. Not staying at home. Not watching Netflix. Not doing what you were doing before you got arrested."
"If people start to get the impression that you can do what happened on Jan. 6, you can associate yourself with that behavior and that there's no real consequence, then people will say why not do it again," Judge Reggie Walton, appointed by President George W. Bush, told Mariposa Castro.
Despite the harsh words delivered at sentencing, the judges collectively have actually given less prison time than what prosecutors have sought in around two thirds of the cases. For sentences through February of this year, there have only been six cases in which judges sentenced defendants to prison time even if prosecutors had not sought it. Chutkan, who has given time behind bars in every Jan. 6 case she's heard, was the judge in four of those cases.
More than half of the people sentenced to longer prison terms, such as two or more years, have been convicted of assault or injuring others.
The defendants who haven't received any prison time are often fined, and sentenced to a combination of probation, community service and home confinement, depending on the nature of the case. The vast majority of these defendants are charged only with "parading or demonstrating in a Capitol building," which is a misdemeanor.
Could another incident like the Capitol riot happen again?
There are still major efforts to rewrite history, including from members of Congress who have repeatedly claimed Jan. 6 was not as violent as it clearly was. Just this month, House Republicans announced plans to "reinvestigate" Jan. 6.
Mary McCord, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law, says she doesn't worry about another attack on the Capitol itself, but says we're perhaps in a worse position now than we were before the insurrection.
"That's because it didn't end after Jan. 6," she says. "Those people are still out there eating this up and consuming this. And not all of them saw Jan. 6 as, 'Oh my gosh. Wow. Okay, boy, now I realize democracy is at stake here. I'm going to shake this off and I'm going to quit ingesting this kind of disinformation.' That's not what we saw at all. We saw a doubling down. And it's made worse because elected officials, elected officials at high levels in Congress and in the states, have doubled down."
There have been federal efforts to combat anti-democratic sentiment. Late last year, the bipartisan House Select Committee issued its final report on Jan. 6, ultimately concluding that Trump was at least in part responsible for the riot and recommending him and others for prosecution. That report is now in the hands of U.S. special counsel Jack Smith at the Justice Department, who is tasked with investigating the former president.
Lewis, of George Washington University, says holding the rioters on Jan. 6 accountable for their actions that day is necessary, but he says we also need to hold responsible the leaders who got all those people to the Capitol that day in the first place.
"A lot of it now does come down to the special counsel and to the DOJ more broadly to recognize that if you're just going to keep arresting, you know, the 925th guy who just walked into the Capitol, took some photos and walked out, it risks missing the forest for the trees," he says. "It's just becoming whack a mole at a certain point."
NPR's Barrie Hardymon edited this story for radio and digital, and NPR's Barbara Van Woerkom contributed research.