WASHINGTON — Jacob Chansley — an Arizona man who became one of the most notorious participants in the Jan. 6 insurrection after he was photographed storming the Capitol wearing face paint and horns and triumphantly posing shirtless on the Senate dais — entered a guilty plea on Friday.
Chansley, who proceeded through the halls of Congress carrying what prosecutors described as a spear with an American flag attached, became the latest of more than 50 Capitol rioters to take a deal with prosecutors so far. He pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of an official proceeding, a felony. He’s facing an estimated sentencing range of 41 to 51 months in prison, although he could argue for less time and the judge has the power to hand down a sentence above or below that.
His plea marks the beginning of the end of one of the most high-profile prosecutions to date. His outfit and his presence on the Senate floor, as well as his public pronouncements of support for the QAnon mass delusion, all but ensured that photos of him from that day would go viral. He was often referred to as the “QAnon shaman”; he has said that he’s a follower of shamanism. The day after the riots, he bragged about his involvement in them.
“The fact that we had a bunch of our traitors in office hunker down, put on their gas masks, and retreat into their underground bunker, I consider that a win,” Chansley told NBC News on Jan. 7, in an interview quoted by prosecutors in their successful efforts to keep him in jail after his arrest.
Once Chansley was in custody, his legal defense invited media coverage and public attention. Most defendants have tried to keep a low profile — especially since judges have signaled that they do not want cases tried in the press — but Chansley at one point taped an interview from jail that aired on 60 Minutes+ in March. The move earned him and his lawyer a rebuke from the judge. His lawyer publicized via court filings that Chansley had sought a pardon from Donald Trump (he did not receive one) and then publicly disavowed his support for the former president. He issued a public apology and offered himself as a witness for Trump’s impeachment trial earlier this year. (He was not called to testify.)
Chansley did not speak much during Friday’s plea hearing. During an early exchange where US District Judge Royce Lamberth confirmed that he was mentally competent to enter a guilty plea, Chansley thanked him for taking his mental health concerns seriously. He also said he hoped Lamberth wasn’t offended by statements he’d made during a psychiatric evaluation about hoping the judge would be “impartial.” The judge said he wasn’t offended, and in fact thought Chansley’s statements had been “fairly pleasant.”
“God bless you and thank you for what you do for our country,” Chansley said.
Chansley was arrested three days after the attack on the Capitol, and a grand jury later returned a six-count indictment that included the obstruction count, one of the most serious felonies charged in any of the 600-plus cases filed. The charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. His lack of criminal history meant he would likely face far less time than if he went to trial and lost, but it nevertheless raised the stakes for him to try to take his case to a jury compared to defendants facing only misdemeanors.
The only person sentenced so far after pleading guilty to that same charge, Paul Hodgkins, faced a recommended sentencing range of 15 to 21 months in prison. Hodgkins ultimately received some leniency from his judge and is serving an eight-month term behind bars.
Chansley has been in jail since his arrest, and on Friday his lawyer Al Watkins made another plea to release him until his sentencing hearing on Nov. 17. Watkins argued that Chansley was not a danger to the community, saying that he had surrendered to authorities at the start; the government has disputed that narrative, saying he had agreed to be interviewed by the FBI but didn’t actually show up to surrender. Watkins also said Chansley hadn’t been disruptive during his time in custody. The lawyer said that keeping him in jail, where he’s usually held in solitary confinement for most of the day, would exacerbate his client's “mental health vulnerabilities.”
The government opposed allowing Chansley to go free. Lamberth did not immediately rule but said he’d make a decision soon.
Prosecutors had argued to keep Chansley in jail while his case went forward even though he wasn’t charged with a violent crime or conspiring in advance to attack the Capitol. The judge agreed with the government that the 6-foot pole he carried around the Capitol with a metal spearhead on top was a weapon, which made him eligible for detention.
In ordering Chansley to stay in jail in March, Lamberth wrote that Chansley and his lawyer had tried to “manipulate the evidence and minimize the seriousness” of what he was accused of doing, which included leaving a handwritten note for then–vice president Mike Pence on the dais that read, “ITS ONLY A MATTER OF TIME JUSTICE IS COMING!” The government highlighted the fact that Chansley expressed a desire to come back to Washington for President Joe Biden’s inauguration, which was another sign, it argued, that he still posed a danger.
Lamberth found that Chansley’s arguments that he was following Trump’s direction on Jan. 6 also didn’t help his effort to stay out of jail. The judge wrote that blaming the former president showed Chansley’s “inability (or refusal) to exercise independent judgment and confirm his behavior to the law.” Chansley said he didn’t regret his loyalty to Trump during the 60 Minutes+ interview, the judge noted.
Chansley at one point tried to get released from jail — or at least have the judge intervene with jail officials on his behalf — on the grounds that his religious beliefs as a shaman meant he could only eat organic food, which wasn’t available at the DC Jail. The judge ordered Chansley transferred to a jail in Alexandria, Virginia, which was able to provide organic meals.