Briefing

Prosecuting the insurrectionists

The Justice Department is racking up guilty pleas in the largest criminal investigation in U.S. history.

The Justice Department is racking up guilty pleas in the largest criminal investigation in U.S. history. Here's everything you need to know:

Who's been prosecuted so far? 

Federal prosecutors have charged 910 people with participating in the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, including far-right militia members, cops, doctors, business owners, a State Department aide, a New Mexico county commissioner, an Olympic gold medalist, and at least 81 former or current members of the armed services and 19 current or former police officers. Some of the most prominent insurrectionists have already been sentenced, including Jacob Chansley, the face-painted, spear-carrying "QAnon Shaman," and Robert Packer, whose sweatshirt that day read "Camp Auschwitz." An estimated 2,500 people stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and attempts to identify the rioters continue; prosecutors say about 2,000 of them could ultimately face charges. Most of the accused are white male supporters of former President Trump who say they were radicalized by his claims of a stolen election and were acting in response to his command that they "fight like hell" to stop the certification of Joe Biden's victory. At his trial, Dustin Thompson, a 38-year-old exterminator from Columbus, Ohio, said he believed that at Trump's Jan. 6 "Stop the Steal" rally, the president had given "an order to do something," and "I felt obligated to do that."

Are prosecutors getting convictions? 

Yes, although many cases remain pending. About 390 have pleaded guilty, and 34 were convicted at trial and sentenced. The average felony sentence has been about 33 months. Just one defendant has been acquitted of all charges — a former government contractor who persuaded a judge that police allowed him inside the Capitol. Albert Watkins, an attorney for several Jan. 6 defendants, said guilty pleas were unavoidable given the selfies defendants took inside the Capitol. "It's hard to defend somebody when there's roughly 287 million miles of video footage of your client being where he's not supposed to be," Watkins said. 

What crimes were charged? 

Hundreds of insurrectionists have been charged with trespassing, and another several hundred face charges of obstructing Congress' certification of the Electoral College vote. About a dozen rioters have received more than a year in prison for assaulting police officers. Last week, Patrick McCaughey, 25, was convicted of seven felonies for grabbing a riot shield and using it to pin D.C. police officer Daniel Hodges in a doorway; a video of the attack shows a crushed Hodges screaming in pain, as McCaughey rips off his gas mask and beats the officer's head against the door. 

Are there any long sentences? 

A few. Retired New York City cop Thomas Webster was sentenced earlier this month to 10 years in prison. Webster wore a tactical vest to the Capitol and swung a metal flagpole at an officer before tackling the officer and pulling off his gas mask. Lonnie Leroy Coffman, a 72-year-old military veteran, was sentenced to 46 months after parking a truck near the Capitol filled with Molotov cocktails, a handgun, a rifle, a shotgun, a crossbow, a stun gun, a machete, and 11 jars of homemade napalm. Guy Reffitt, a Texan militia member who prosecutors said "lit the match" of the insurrection, was sentenced to seven years in prison after his own son alerted the FBI to his involvement. "If you turn me in," Reffitt had told his son, "you're a traitor, and traitors get shot." Cleveland Meredith received 28 months in prison for texting about plans to assassinate Pelosi by putting "a bullet in her noggin on Live TV." He was arrested a mile from the Capitol with a rifle and 2,500 rounds of ammunition. 

Are the charges sufficiently serious? 

That's been debated fiercely. Judge Beryl Howell challenged prosecutors for suggesting little to no jail time for many insurrectionists. "No wonder parts of the public in the U.S. are confused about whether what happened on Jan. 6 at the Capitol was simply a petty offense of trespassing with some disorderliness, or shocking criminal conduct that represented a grave threat to our democratic norms," Howell said. Others have praised the DOJ for differentiating what former federal prosecutor Paul Rosenzweig called "the idiots from the leaders." Earlier this year, prosecutors charged 16 leaders of the far-right Oath Keepers and Proud Boys with seditious conspiracy, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Prosecutors have unearthed a nine-page document titled "1776 Returns," which appears to detail these white nativist groups' plans for "patriots" to storm government buildings. 

Are the attackers repentant? 

Some are, but others are not. "I'm just so ashamed that I was a part of that," said Florida business owner Robert Palmer after being sentenced to more than five years in prison for assaulting police. Another rioter, Stephen Ayres, urged Trumpists to "take the blinders off...before it's too late." But many attackers say they still believe the 2020 election was stolen. Before being sentenced to 44 months in prison for attacking an officer, Nicholas Languerand said in an online message, "In the face of tyranny violence may be the only answer," adding, "Next time we come back with rifles."

How suspects were identified

Over the past 20 months, the Justice Department has tracked down insurrectionists in all 50 states using phone location data, social media posts, and other tech-driven evidence. Investigators hired a contractor to help scrutinize hundreds of thousands of hours of video; volunteer online sleuths, nicknamed Sedition Hunters, have helped the FBI identify dozens of suspects. Many Capitol attackers left long trails of evidence. Robert Chapman of New York was arrested after posting on the dating app Bumble that he was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, as well as posting photos on Facebook with the caption "INSIDE THE CRAPITOL!!!" Garrett Miller of Dallas was arrested while wearing a T-shirt that read "I Was There, Washington, D.C., January 6, 2021." Justice Department officials have asked for an additional $34 million and 130 new positions to track down and prosecute additional Jan. 6 insurrectionists, calling the probe "the most complex that this department has ever undertaken." 

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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