WASHINGTON — A Virginia couple pleaded guilty on Monday to a single misdemeanor for participating in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, becoming the first defendants to cut a deal that carries minimal, if any, jail time.
Jessica and Joshua Bustle pleaded guilty to one count of “parading, demonstrating, or picketing” inside the Capitol, a charge with a maximum sentence of six months in jail. They were each facing four misdemeanor counts, including illegally entering the Capitol and disorderly conduct, which carry up to a year behind bars, but the government agreed to drop the rest of the charges as part of the agreement.
Lawyers for the Bustles told BuzzFeed News after the hearing that they planned to argue for no jail time for their clients, noting their lack of previous criminal history and the fact that they weren’t accused of preplanned violence or property destruction on Jan. 6. The Bustles also each will pay $500 in restitution toward what the government has estimated to be nearly $1.5 million in damage to the Capitol caused by rioters. A sentencing date hasn’t been scheduled yet.
Early plea agreements and sentencing decisions set benchmarks for what other defendants charged with similar offenses could face in terms of prison time if they also take deals, or if they go to trial and lose. Defendants who plead guilty early tend to get credit for that, as well as for any cooperation they provide to the government, a lack of criminal history, and how sincerely a judge believes they’ve accepted responsibility for their actions.
More than 200 of the nearly 500 people charged with participating in the Jan. 6 insurrection are facing solely misdemeanor counts. The first two plea deals featured felonies and potentially much more time in prison than the Bustles could get, although still far below the maximum sentences those charges can carry. Paul Hodgkins, who pleaded guilty to the nonviolent felony of obstructing Congress, has an estimated sentencing range between 15 and 21 months, while Jon Schaffer, who pleaded guilty to carrying a weapon (bear spray) into the Capitol, is facing between 41 and 51 months.
Jessica Bustle’s lawyer, Nabeel Kibria, said in a phone interview that prosecutors had given the Bustles a choice of which of the four counts they were facing to plead guilty to. They chose the one that seemed most “milquetoast” and “benign,” he said, describing the couple as “normal people who got caught up in social media.”
“They just want to get back to their lives and move on with it,” he said.
Joshua Bustle’s lawyer, Tim Anderson, echoed Kibria, writing in an email that the Bustles were “normal good and patriotic Americans that did not wake up on January 6, 2021 expecting to commit any crimes.” He compared the events of Jan. 6, when thousands of Trump supporters descended on the Capitol as lawmakers certified the results of the presidential election, to racial justice and anti–police brutality protests last year.
“However, the law is the law, and if you violate it, you must be held accountable which is the process Mr. Bustle is now going through. I am hoping that US Attorneys all across the nation will hold the same law and order standard against those who were disorderly in the cities and towns across America during the civil unrest periods last summer that the government has now held my client to in the DC riots,” Anderson wrote. (Anderson is the Republican nominee for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2021; the conservative lawyer led an unsuccessful effort last year to oust a state lawmaker after he accused her of inciting people to deface a Confederate monument.)
A spokesperson for the US attorney’s office in Washington did not immediately return a request for comment.
A handful of plea hearings in other Capitol riot cases are scheduled in the next few weeks, and prosecutors and defense lawyers have alerted judges in numerous other cases about offers and ongoing negotiations. An overwhelming majority of federal criminal cases end with plea deals, although it’s still too early to know how the bulk of the Jan. 6 cases will resolve; several defendants are fighting the lawfulness of the charges, and prosecutors have dropped one case altogether.
The Bustles were arrested in March and allowed to go home while their case was pending. The FBI received multiple tips about the couple, according to charging papers, including information that Jessica Bustle had posted on Facebook about going inside the Capitol. In excerpts cited by the government, she wrote about how she and her husband had attended the “Health Freedom Rally” — an event that featured anti-vaccine activists and proponents of conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic, according to CNN — before going to the Capitol. The government included a photo of her entering the Capitol holding a sign that read, “VACCINE INJURY is the REAL PANDEMIC.”
Jessica Bustle disputed that the riots had been violent, posting that she and her husband walked inside the Capitol without incident and spoke with police, who agreed with their position to reject a COVID-19 vaccine. She wrote, “There were no guns, weapons, and no violence.” (More than 130 people have been charged with assaulting or interfering with police, and dozens are facing weapons-related counts; approximately 140 police officers were injured, and rioters also attacked journalists.)
In other Facebook posts quoted by the government, Jessica Bustle wrote that former vice president Mike Pence was a “traitor” and that she had “stormed” the Capitol; called for a “revolution” and claimed the election wasn’t fair; and expressed that she was proud of “patriots” for “standing up.”
“We don’t win this thing sitting on the sidelines. Excited to stand for truth with my fellow patriots and freedom fighters in D.C. today,” she posted on Facebook on Jan. 6.
Near the end of the virtual hearing before US District Judge Thomas Hogan on Monday, Jessica Bustle asked to speak. She told the judge that she was “sorry” for what she’d posted online about Jan. 6, but she wanted him to know that she’d also posted sentiments that were “kind,” including asking people to “pray for America.”