5 takeaways from the Capitol riot criminal cases, one year later
By now, the date is lodged in the collective national memory: Jan. 6, 2021, when hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the legitimate transfer of power from the former president to whom they had pledged loyalty to current President Biden. Rioters shattered windows, assaulted woefully understaffed police forces and sent lawmakers and aides fleeing in fear of their lives.
In the months since, federal prosecutors have charged more than 700 people related to the attack, with new criminal cases introduced every week. NPR has been tracking each of these, collecting information on the people facing charges and following the eventual outcomes of their cases.
Here are some of our main takeaways from that data, one year later.
The alleged rioters came from all over — and most were relatively young
The rioters came to the nation's capital on Jan. 6 from all over the United States. They traveled to Washington, D.C., by bus, plane, train and car, some traveling thousands of miles to get there.
Those facing charges hail from at least 46 states, plus the District of Columbia. So far, no rioters from Nebraska, North Dakota, Vermont or Wyoming appear to have been charged.
Conversely, people from California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas account for more than 40% of the rioters charged, with more than 50 rioters coming from each of those five states. It's important to note, however, that those states are also the most populous in the country and that the proportion of rioters from them is not disproportionate.
The group of people charged is difficult to generalize in other ways beyond geography. They work or worked in a wide range of careers, including small-business owners, nurses, teachers, the CEO of a marketing firm and an actor who appeared on the television show Friday Night Lights, among many others.
There does exist one key commonality among the crowd, though it's one that's more difficult to attach a definitive number to: The majority of the rioters appear to be white. Many of those charged also appear to be men, though a sizable minority are women.
The rioters were also relatively young. In contrast to a narrative that many of them were "boomers," at least three-quarters of the rioters charged are under age 55 (the youngest baby boomers are now 57). According to NPR's database, at least 134 people are under age 30.
A quarter of those charged are accused of physical violence
Early on, it was clear that the Capitol riot was violent. More than 140 police officers suffered injuries at the hands of the mob. Still, as the Justice Department has released more and more videos of the attack and as additional charges have been filed against rioters, it has become increasingly clear just how violent that day was.
Prosecutors have charged more than 187 people — roughly a quarter of all defendants — with committing violence, such as assaults on law enforcement officers or members of the media present that day.
Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell was present for some of the most violent clashes that day. He told members of Congress, "What we were subjected to that day was like something from a medieval battle. We fought hand to hand, inch by inch, to prevent an invasion of the Capitol by a violent mob intent on subverting our democratic process."
Some pro-Trump commentators and politicians have asserted that the rioters were "unarmed." This is false.
"The objects thrown at us varied in size, shape and consistency, some were frozen cans and bottles, rebar from the construction, bricks, liquids, pepper spray, bear spray, sticks of various widths, pipes, bats, some were armed with guns and some had tasers or something similar," one unnamed police officer testified to Congress. "I specifically remember being sprayed with bear spray at least 6-8 times while tussling with rioters who were trying to use the bike racks against us as weapons."
Metropolitan Police Department officer Michael Fanone has said that he was shocked with a Taser several times, which led to a heart attack, and that rioters threatened to take his gun and shoot him with it.
Prosecutors have also cited evidence that some defendants brought firearms to the Capitol grounds, though not inside the building itself. Former Drug Enforcement Administration agent Mark Ibrahim was charged with bringing a gun onto the grounds.
Prosecutors have also presented photos in court documents of Guy Wesley Reffitt with a holster on his belt, which the government has said held a Smith & Wesson pistol.
Judges have also made clear that they are treating allegations of violence against police as among the most serious stemming from the riot. Scott Kevin Fairlamb of New Jersey pleaded guilty to allegations that he shoved and punched a police officer, took a police baton and yelled, "What patriots do? We f****** disarm them and then we storm the f****** Capitol!" U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth sentenced Fairlamb to almost 3 1/2 years in prison, one of the lengthiest prison terms so far.
Many of the accused appear to have military or police backgrounds
A few weeks after the Jan. 6 riot, NPR first reported on the disproportionate share of people facing charges who appeared to have U.S. military histories. Back then, we reported that around 1 in 5 people charged had served or were currently serving in the military, which is nearly three times the proportion of veterans in the general population.
Though the percentage has gone down since that initial reporting, it is still high: Around 13% of those facing charges have military or law enforcement backgrounds. Those facing charges served in nearly every branch of the military, including the Marine Corps, Air Force, Army, Navy and National Guard. Among the accused are current and former police officers from police departments serving places as large as Houston and New York City and as small as Rocky Mount, Va. There were friends who served together in the Marine Corps, a cadet at The Citadel, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at least one recipient of the Purple Heart.
According to an April 2021 report by George Washington University's Program on Extremism, rioters with military experience were about four times more likely to be part of far-right extremist groups like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys than rioters without military experience. In the aftermath of Jan. 6, Defense Department spokesperson John Kirby called the riot "a wake-up call" and the prevalence of extremist views among current and former service members "not an insignificant problem." In late December, the department released a report determining that "extremist activity within the Department of Defense is rare, but even the actions of a few can have an outsized impact on unit cohesion, morale and readiness."
Dozens are in jail awaiting trial, and some have been there for nearly a year
Most of the alleged rioters are awaiting the resolution of their cases at home, but at least 76 people are being held in pretrial detention. Many of them are charged with more serious crimes, like assault or conspiracy. Some have been held in detention for months, and at least 26 have been there for nearly a year, since January or February of 2021.
Several people facing charges have complained about squalid conditions in the Correctional Treatment Facility in D.C., where around 30 alleged rioters are being held. Many of their complaints over the conditions of the jail were verified in a November report by the U.S. Marshals Service. Those substandard conditions aren't new, according to D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine.
"Concerns about conditions in the jail received little attention until they were raised, of course, by mostly white defendants accused of perpetrating the January 6 insurrection. ... That's not because people weren't complaining," Racine said at a hearing of the D.C. Council's Judiciary and Public Safety Committee after the Marshals Service report.
So far, there have been 74 sentences — and they have varied widely
Judges have handed down sentences in 74 cases so far, and those sentences have varied widely depending on the defendants' actions, criminal history (if any) and whether they expressed remorse for their crimes, among other factors.
At this point, a little more than half (55%) of the people who have been sentenced received no time behind bars. It's important to note, however, that many of the defendants who have pleaded guilty at this stage admitted to lower-level crimes.
U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden has handed down the most lenient sentences so far, which include no jail: two months of probation for Sean Carlo Cordon of Los Angeles and Danielle Nicole Doyle of Oklahoma City. Each separately admitted to entering the Capitol through a broken window and briefly walking through the building without committing violence or property damage. They both pleaded guilty to "parading, demonstrating, or picketing in a Capitol building," a misdemeanor.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan handed down the toughest sentence: more than five years in prison for Robert Scott Palmer of Largo, Fla., who admitted to assaulting police with a wooden plank and a fire extinguisher. He pleaded guilty to "assaulting, resisting or impeding certain officers using a dangerous weapon," a felony.
In their remarks at sentencing, judges have frequently acknowledged the "unprecedented" circumstances of an attack on the country's peaceful transfer of power, and that appears to have played a role in some of their decisions.
Jacob Chansley, who is widely known as the "QAnon shaman," breached the Capitol and made it to the floor of the U.S. Senate, but was not accused of committing violence. Nonetheless, Lamberth gave him one of the lengthiest sentences yet: 41 months in prison. "You didn't slug anybody, but what you did here was actually obstruct the functioning of the whole government," said Lamberth. Chansley has taken steps to appeal that sentence.
Chutkan has also said she hopes tough sentences will help deter future political violence.
"Every day we're hearing of anti-democratic factions plotting violence," Chutkan said at Palmer's sentencing. "It has to be made clear that trying to violently overthrow the government, trying to stop the peaceful transfer of power and assaulting law enforcement officers in that effort is going to be met with absolutely certain punishment."
The first trials of Capitol riot defendants are set to begin this year, and there's a good chance they will have a major impact on sentences. Because of the controversial principle known as the "trial penalty," people who take their cases to trial and lose face much stiffer sentences than those who plead guilty. That factor is likely to weigh heavily on the hundreds of people still working their way through the criminal justice system a year after the insurrection.
Photos: Department of Justice; Grapevine (Texas) Police Department via AP (Brock); Win McNamee/Getty Images (Chansley); Montgomery County Jail via AP (Crowl); Mike Theiler/Reuters (Jensen); FBI (Khater); Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images (Sherrill)
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
In the year since a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, the FBI has arrested more than 700 people for their alleged roles in the chaos and destruction that day. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in his speech today that the Justice Department is moving at, quote, "record speed and scale" to hold people responsible for the attack and that work continues.
Investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach has been tracking all of these cases, along with a team here at NPR. Tom joins us now. Hi, Tom.
TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Hey.
CHANG: All right. So can you just give us a sense of where the criminal investigation stands at this point?
DREISBACH: Right. The FBI calls the Capitol riot an act of domestic terrorism, and it's the Bureau's most sweeping investigation in its history. As you said, they've arrested more than 700 people, and they continue to make arrests it feels like almost every day. The charges so far range from people who are accused of entering and walking around the Capitol but not committing violence to more severe charges - people who allegedly used dangerous weapons to assault police or even conspired for weeks or months to plan the attack.
Today, in that speech from Attorney General Merrick Garland, he said something interesting about how investigations like this work. Essentially, he said, they start with the low-hanging fruit.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MERRICK GARLAND: We build investigations by laying a foundation. We resolve more straightforward cases first because they provide the evidentiary foundation for more complex cases. Overt actors and the evidence they provide can lead us to others who may also have been involved.
DREISBACH: Garland said they - investigators are following the money. They're looking at involvement of people, quote, "at any level" and whether they were actually there that day in Washington on January 6 or not.
CHANG: OK, interesting. So more layers to come, but of the people already charged, I am curious about how many of them have actually been convicted.
DREISBACH: Right. And so far, there's not been a single trial. We expect those to start later this year. But more than 170 people have pleaded guilty. A little less than half of the people who have actually been sentenced, the smaller subset of that, they've gotten jail or prison.
The longest sentence so far is around five years in prison. That was for someone who attacked police with a fire extinguisher. On the low end, however, people have received time on probation or home confinement. And those are people, typically, who commit misdemeanors. The most high-profile cases, however, are mostly still working their way through the courts.
CHANG: OK. And how would you say judges are thinking through the sentencing piece of this? Like, what themes are coming up in their reasoning?
DREISBACH: I mean, very carefully is how I would describe their thinking. I mean, you get the sense they're struggling to figure out how to sentence people. The word you hear all the time is unprecedented. And they talk some about sending a message that people who commit violence need to face stiff punishment.
The people who plead guilty, you know, they often express remorse. They'll talk about how they think Donald Trump lied to them, misled them. They regret what they did.
But in one case, a woman pleaded guilty, and she sounded remorseful at sentencing and received probation. Then she later went on Fox News and kind of downplayed what she had done in the riot. And the judge who sentenced her has since said that he felt like he was played. And so the experience in that case has had ripple effects on how other judges think about sentencing.
CHANG: Well, Tom, I know that you've been investigating this for almost a year now, and I understand that you are not a judge, but what do you think? Do these punishments fit the crimes?
DREISBACH: It's a really tough question, and I hear from people on all sides of that question all the time. Perceptions of January 6, as I think everyone knows, are really polarized on political lines. NPR's own polling has found that almost 1 in 5 Republicans believe a total conspiracy theory - that it was not Trump supporters who attacked the Capitol, but actually leftist agitators with antifa or even government agents.
Even the judges themselves don't all agree. I mean, some feel like the Department of Justice is letting people off easy. On the other hand, one judge has said that he feels suspicious that, in his view, people who rioted during the racial justice protests in 2020, he felt, are getting lighter treatment than Capitol rioters. And then I've heard other judges talk about why they are concerned that people who inspired the mob are not being charged while the people who were there have been.
CHANG: That is NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach. Thank you so much.
DREISBACH: Thanks, Ailsa.
CHANG: And there are new arrests all the time. Tom and the team are tracking them. You can see for yourself on npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.