WASHINGTON — Federal charges for the Jan. 6 insurrection began pouring in the day after the attack and haven’t stopped. The case count passed 700 just before the end of 2021. BuzzFeed News has tracked every case filed. One year in, here’s where the prosecution effort stands.
The sprawling prosecution effort has been unprecedented in its scope. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday presented the latest statistics trying to convey the massive scale: More than 5,000 subpoenas and search warrants. Nearly 2,000 seized phones and other devices. More than 300,000 tips from the public. More than 20,000 hours of video footage. The government has routinely asked for extensions to the normal deadlines that apply to criminal cases, citing the scale of the prosecution effort and delays in developing a system to manage the massive amount of evidence.
Judges and defense lawyers have at times pushed back, particularly in cases where alleged rioters were held in jail after their arrest. But for the most part, judges have allowed longer time frames. Some of the earliest cases are only just starting to wrap up. Mark Leffingwell of Seattle was the first person to face federal charges; he was arrested at the Capitol after punching two police officers. He entered a guilty plea in late October and is due to be sentenced on Feb. 10.
New cases are still being filed, some rooted in tips sent to the FBI right after the attack. Take defendant Michael Oliveras of New Jersey. On Jan. 8, 2021, an anonymous tip came in about a Parler user who’d posted about being at the Capitol during the riot. The FBI matched the Parler account to a phone number linked to Oliveras. Citing that and other evidence, a prosecutor filed a criminal complaint against him on Dec. 8 — 11 months after the first tip.
Justice Department officials said in the days that followed the insurrection that they were prepared to prosecute anyone who committed a crime on Jan. 6. In a speech marking the first anniversary this week, Garland said the DOJ was still “committed to holding all Jan. 6 perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law” — “there is no higher priority,” he said. The fact that most people who stormed the Capitol were allowed to leave and scatter across the country complicated that effort, but Garland said there was no deadline or case count milestone when they’d wind down.
The government’s position is that between 2,000 and 2,500 people went inside the Capitol. That number doesn’t include people who assaulted police officers or members of the media outside. Prosecutors haven’t shown much appetite so far for charging people who crossed police barriers onto the restricted Capitol grounds but didn’t go inside or commit other crimes, although they have set precedent for that; Infowars host Owen Shroyer is being charged for being in a restricted area outdoors. On Jan. 6, Shroyer was with Infowars founder and right-wing activist Alex Jones, who hasn’t been charged.
The first plea deal became public in April, when heavy metal musician Jon Schaffer of Indiana pleaded guilty to two felonies for obstructing an official proceeding and going into the Capitol with a weapon (a can of bear spray). Schaffer had been a member of the Oath Keepers, a right-wing group that’s featured prominently in the government’s exploration of ties between extremist organizations and the insurrection. He agreed to cooperate and hasn’t been sentenced yet.
The pace of guilty pleas has picked up since the summer. Prosecutors focused early plea deal offers on defendants they’d charged solely with misdemeanor crimes from the start; 150 of the 174 guilty pleas have been for those less serious categories of crimes, such as illegally being in the Capitol and parading. In 11 cases, prosecutors have agreed to let a defendant charged with a felony plead down to a misdemeanor.
The US attorney’s office has also locked down guilty pleas from defendants in several high-profile cases involving more serious crimes: Jacob Chansley of Arizona, previously referred to as the “QAnon shaman,” who was photographed posing shirtless and wearing horns on the Senate floor, was sentenced to 41 months in prison after pleading guilty to obstruction. Four other members of the Oath Keepers are cooperating after pleading guilty to conspiracy. Former Olympic athlete Klete Keller is potentially facing two years in prison.
Two defendants opted to plead guilty to the full slate of crimes they were charged with instead of making a deal with prosecutors. Pleading guilty often comes with the benefit of having charges dropped, but defendants give up certain rights and may decide they don’t want to work with the government. Antionne Brodnax, a Virginia-based rapper known as Bugzie the Don, pleaded guilty to a set of misdemeanors for illegally going into the Capitol. He told the FBI he was filming a music video and used a photo of himself sitting on a SWAT vehicle in front of the Capitol as the cover of an album titled The Capital. Matthew Perna of Pennsylvania pleaded guilty to a felony for obstructing Congress as well as misdemeanor counts; in a video filmed on Jan. 6, he said: "lt's not over, trust me. The purpose of today was to expose Pence as a traitor." Their respective lawyers did not return requests for comment.
Probation. Incarceration. Home detention. Financial penalties. Community service. Social media limits. The sentences handed down so far have largely reflected the nature of the crimes featured in the first wave of plea deals — minimal to no jail time for low-level misdemeanor offenses. Even in misdemeanor cases, there’s a lack of consensus among judges about what just punishment looks like for joining an insurrection. The small number of rioters who pleaded guilty to more serious crimes, like assaulting police and obstructing Congress, stared down far more time behind bars — setting the stage for higher-stakes sentencing hearings this year as more felony cases slowly start to resolve.
The first sentence to cross the five-year mark went to Robert Palmer of Florida, who pleaded guilty to repeatedly attacking police outside the Capitol using a fire extinguisher and a wooden plank. His plea agreement estimated less prison time on the table if he got credit for accepting responsibility. But at his Dec. 17 sentencing, US District Judge Tanya Chutkan agreed with prosecutors that he’d blown up that opportunity by posting a fundraising pitch online after entering his guilty plea that suggested that he’d acted in self-defense; that narrative was false, Palmer admitted to the judge.
Once incarceration is off the table, what makes for a harsher or lighter sentence can be up for debate. Probation means resuming normal life with some conditions and restrictions. Danielle Doyle, whose former coworker at the Oklahoma City Thunder reported her to the FBI, pleaded guilty to the parading misdemeanor and received the shortest period of probation to date — two months. Most probation terms have ranged from one to three years. US District Judge Trevor McFadden also ordered Doyle to pay a $3,000 fine, a penalty that the government hadn’t asked for. Several judges have added financial consequences in the mix, with some saying they thought it might be more effective than a short stint in jail to make rioters feel some “hurt,” in the words of one judge.
As part of nearly every plea deal entered to date, defendants are agreeing to pay restitution to the feds — $500 for a misdemeanor plea, and between $1,000 and $2,000 for a felony plea. Any fine levied by a judge as part of a sentence is on top of that.
The government’s cooperators include the four members of the Oath Keepers conspiracy case and Schaffer, Matthew Greene of New York, charged in one of the Proud Boys conspiracy cases, Gina Bisignano, a Beverly Hills salon owner who recorded video of her experience entering the Capitol, Keller, the former Olympian, and Josiah Colt of Idaho, who traveled to DC with several codefendants whose cases are pending. Another 101 defendants who took plea deals also agreed to a type of partial cooperation: submitting for a final interview or giving investigators a last look at their social media posts and any photos or videos on their phones.
Adam Johnson of Florida was captured in a viral photo smiling and waving as he carried a lectern with the speaker of the House’s seal through the rotunda. But his guilty plea was notable for other reasons. Prosecutors learned that Johnson had expressed plans to write a book about his experience at the Capitol — in the government’s words, to “potentially profit off his illegal conduct on January 6, 2021.” He became the first defendant who had to agree to a provision in his deal that he would give the feds any money he earned from content he produced related to Jan. 6 for five years.
Chansley is one of three defendants pursuing appeals of their sentences after pleading guilty. The others are Scott Fairlamb, a New Jersey man sentenced to 44 months in prison after he admitted to punching a police officer in the head, and Rasha Abual-Ragheb, also of New Jersey, who was sentenced to three years of probation and two months of home detention after pleading guilty to the parading misdemeanor. Plea deals significantly restrict a defendant’s ability to appeal; one of the only arguments they’re allowed to raise is that their lawyer was ineffective. All three cases are in the early stages of the appeal process.
Weapons that prosecutors say rioters brought with them or improvised, and in some cases used on police: guns, knives, bats, chemicals, stolen police gear, flagpoles, a “Trump 2020” sign, pieces of metal and wood, crutches, a skateboard, stun devices, a crowbar, and a firecracker.
Rioters engaged in violent clashes throughout the afternoon with officers from the US Capitol Police, the DC police force, and other federal agencies who responded to the scene. Police body camera videos made public as part of the prosecutions have provided harrowing first-person footage of the physical and verbal assaults on officers that day. The US attorney’s office has put the number of cases involving allegations of attacking or interfering with officers at more than 225, including those in which defendants are charged with the broader offense of civil disorder.
The assault on the Capitol was a mob event, but the overwhelming majority of defendants are being prosecuted as individuals. In a few dozen cases, however, prosecutors have presented evidence alleging that clusters of rioters planned to take action to disrupt Congress’s certification of the election. In addition to the Oath Keepers conspiracy case, which has steadily added more defendants over the past year, there are conspiracy cases involving purported members of other far-right groups, including the Proud Boys and the Three Percenters.
On Jan. 12, Michael Sherwin, then the acting US attorney in Washington, told reporters that his office had created strike teams to build cases involving more serious crimes related to the insurrection, including seditious conspiracy. But no one has been charged yet with sedition or the separate offense of insurrection; both are rarely brought charges, and the government would almost certainly face legal challenges to their use. Nearly 300 people have been charged with obstructing an official proceeding, a felony that can carry significant prison time.
The FBI continues to search for suspects in connection with pipe bombs found midday on Jan. 6 outside the respective headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee. The feds have offered a $100,000 reward for information that leads to an identification and have repeatedly promoted surveillance footage of a person seen wearing a sweatshirt and carrying a bag the night before.
Charging papers are full of social media posts and other alleged statements by defendants denouncing former vice president Mike Pence for what they believed was his betrayal of former president Donald Trump. But some of the most violent language was reserved for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Charging papers describe alleged rioters asking where they could find Pelosi or bragging later about going into her office. In the case of Pauline Bauer of Pennsylvania, prosecutors said she was captured on a police body camera saying words to the effect of, "Bring Nancy Pelosi out here now. We want to hang that fucking bitch.” Steven Billingsley of Ohio was allegedly recorded on video saying, “No, we do want to hurt Pelosi. I do. Yeah, I would hang her from that big— You see that tree over there? We'd put a rope and hang her.” Richard Barnett of Arkansas was photographed with a foot on a desk in Pelosi’s office, and left a handwritten note that read, “Hey Nancy Bigo was here biotch [sic].”
The most common felonies are for obstructing an official proceeding, which carries a maximum of 20 years in prison, and assaulting police, which carries varying maximum penalties — as little as 1 year or as much as 20 years — depending on the extent of the violence, whether a weapon was used, or if other felony crimes were involved.
The vast majority of defendants are facing the same four base misdemeanor charges: illegally entering a restricted area, disorderly conduct in a restricted area, disorderly conduct in the Capitol, and parading or demonstrating in the Capitol. The first two counts carry up to a year behind bars, and the second two have maximum sentences of six months incarceration.
The federal district court in Washington has marshaled all of its resources to handle the flood of Capitol riot prosecutions, spreading the hundreds of cases across all of the active judges as well as senior judges (judges who are semiretired and can take lower caseloads). The latest available court statistics show that by September 2021, the number of new criminal cases filed in DC over the previous year had gone up by 83.9% compared to the year leading up to September 2020. President Joe Biden’s two nominees to the DC district court so far, Judges Florence Pan and Jia Cobb, were confirmed in the fall and have slowly started taking on cases.
Fights over which defendants should stay in jail after being arrested offered early perspective on how prosecutors were assessing the ongoing danger posed by alleged rioters and how judges were thinking about these cases. Some prominent conservatives, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, have described incarcerated defendants as “political prisoners,” but the majority of people in pretrial detention are charged with assaulting police. The rest are either facing other serious felony charges, had their bond revoked for violating release conditions, or are in custody on unrelated criminal charges.
Evan Neumann, charged with assaulting police at the Capitol, fled the United States and is seeking asylum in Belarus. Michael Adams of Virginia, charged with misdemeanors for going into the Capitol, was arrested in April and released while his case was pending. He failed to appear for a July status hearing, however, and the judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest; he was also facing a warrant as of May for an unrelated offense in Virginia. His location remains unknown, according to his lawyer. A federal grand jury returned an indictment in July charging Jonathan Pollock of Florida with multiple counts of assaulting police at the Capitol; he has not been arrested.
On June 1, a prosecutor filed a notice in court that they were dropping charges filed in January against Christopher Kelly of New York. To support the original complaint, the FBI presented information provided by a confidential source about Facebook messages purportedly sent by Kelly that suggested he’d gone into the Capitol. A search warrant for the Facebook account yielded messages about being at the Capitol; charging papers against Kelly also featured two photos of a person identified as Kelly standing outside. A few months later, it appeared the government had revisited the strength of the evidence. In dismissing the case, the prosecutor wrote: “[U]pon reflection of the facts currently known to the government, the government believes that dismissal without prejudice at this time serves the interests of justice.” Kelly’s lawyer told BuzzFeed News in an email that his client “never entered the Capitol building at any time. This was completely contrary to the charges he faced so the Government had to dismiss.”
No defendant has succeeded yet in convincing a judge to toss out the charges against them. In a series of long-awaited decisions in December, five judges presiding over six different cases — including two conspiracy cases involving members of the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, and one involving a person charged with bringing a firearm to the Capitol — rejected legal challenges to the government’s decision to bring the felony charge of obstructing an official proceeding in connection with the events of Jan. 6. These rulings came from a collection of judges whose pathways to the bench were politically diverse: two were nominated by Trump and the other three by former president Barack Obama. (Two defendants have died while their cases were pending.)
No one charged in connection with Jan. 6 has gone to trial yet, but dates are on the calendar in several dozen cases, including the Oath Keepers conspiracy case. Two defendants are set for trial as early as February: Robert Gieswein of Colorado, who is charged with repeatedly assaulting police with chemical spray and wielding a baseball bat as he made his way to the Capitol, and Guy Reffitt of Texas, who is charged with bringing a handgun to the Capitol.
Trump was impeached by the Democrat-led House of Representatives for inciting the insurrection, but he was acquitted in February after a trial in the Senate. He hasn’t faced criminal charges. Hoping to find some other legal route to hold him accountable, Democrats in Congress and police officers who responded to the riots have filed civil lawsuits, arguing that he conspired to interfere with the certification of the election and that he’s liable for the physical and emotional injuries they sustained. A judge is set to hear arguments on Jan. 10 on motions filed by Trump’s initial push to get three of these cases tossed out. ●
This story has been updated with additional money owed by rioters to the US government. It has also been updated to reflect an additional case where a defendant is cooperating with the government.