WASHINGTON — A judge ruled Monday that a Utah man charged in the Capitol insurrection violated his pretrial release conditions by buying a smartphone he wasn’t supposed to have and trying to promote his organization on Infowars, but she declined to send him back to jail.
US Magistrate Judge Robin Meriweather in Washington, DC, said she had “serious concerns” that John Earle Sullivan had violated another judge’s order so soon after he was allowed to go home last month. However, she said, she didn’t believe the evidence showed that he posed a danger to the community or that there were no other release conditions that the court could order to ensure his compliance going forward.
Meriweather warned that if Sullivan continued to violate court orders, she would have more serious questions about whether he needed to be jailed pending trial. However, she said, “I don’t believe we are there yet in this case.”
Sullivan’s case is unique among the Capitol rioters because he has said he was not in the Capitol as a supporter of former president Donald Trump's but as a journalist, though he had no press credentials. He filmed a Capitol Police officer shooting and killing Ashli Babbitt during the insurrection. In court filings, prosecutors said Sullivan's own video footage showed him recording himself making “consistently gleeful exhortations” and supporting the violence.
“We accomplished this shit. We did this together. Fuck yeah! We are all a part of this history,” Sullivan said in his video footage, according to charging papers.
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Sullivan also organized racial justice demonstrations in Utah last year, a fact that has been used to support baseless claims that liberals and members of antifa had incited the violence at the Capitol and then pinned the blame on Trump supporters, according to PolitiFact.
Court filings in the nearly 200 criminal cases filed so far exhaustively document social media activity and other evidence that indicate that Trump supporters descended on the Capitol on Jan. 6. In some cases, supporters said they went because they believed Trump directed them to do it. And the Washington Post reported that local activists had distanced themselves from Sullivan and were suspicious of his motives. He has a pending criminal case in Utah after being charged with rioting and criminal mischief in connection with a June 30, 2020, protest in Provo where someone was injured.
Sullivan has said he isn’t politically affiliated; he has denied being connected with antifa, Black Lives Matter, or the Trump supporters who broke into the Capitol. In an interview last month on Infowars, he repeated a false claim about President Joe Biden’s health and suggested he believed the US voting system was rigged.
Sullivan appeared on CNN the night of the riot, where he was introduced by Anderson Cooper as a “left-wing activist.” During the interview, which centered on his recording of Babbitt’s death, Sullivan described asking police officers to let Trump supporters through. “By no means am I there on the Trump side or the MAGA side, but I don’t want to see people get hurt unnecessarily,” he said.
Sullivan is facing a six-count indictment. He’s charged with obstructing an official proceeding, aiding and abetting interference with the US Capitol Police, entering a restricted area, disorderly conduct, and violating a prohibition against “parading, demonstrating, or picketing” in the Capitol. The most serious charge he faces, the obstruction count, is a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
A federal magistrate judge in Utah had allowed Sullivan to live at home while his criminal case is pending, subject to limits on his internet use and other activities. His case is now being handled in the federal district court in Washington, DC. Prosecutors went before a DC judge to argue that he’d repeatedly violated the Utah judge’s release order and should be jailed. At a hearing on Feb. 5, Assistant US Attorney Candice Wong called his alleged violations “extremely concerning” and proof that he couldn’t be trusted to comply with court orders if he were allowed to stay out of custody.
Sullivan had been instructed not to go on social media or do any work on behalf of Insurgence USA, which he founded and describes its mission on its website as “to provide you the truth” and to form “a rainbow coalition … to fight for liberation and freedom for all people.” The government cited evidence from his probation officer that he’d repeatedly tried to access Twitter, bought a smartphone after being told he couldn’t, and communicated with an Infowars producer about promoting Insurgence USA during a Jan. 26 interview. During the Feb. 5 hearing, Wong also noted that Sullivan had emailed Insurgence USA’s members to ask them to “pack” a Feb. 1 court appearance.
Sullivan’s lawyer Steven Kiersh told the judge there may have been a miscommunication about what kind of phone he could get and the parameters of what the judge had ordered regarding his internet use. He argued that Sullivan had a right under the First Amendment to ask his supporters to call into a public court hearing, and said he had given Insurgence USA’s information to the Infowars producer because they’d asked for it, and that he hadn’t initiated the conversation. He argued there was no evidence he was a danger to the community or had willingly violated his release conditions.
Meriweather said she didn’t believe the evidence was “clear and convincing” that Sullivan had violated his release conditions by trying to access Twitter; the government presented evidence that there were attempts to access his Twitter accounts from an IP address where he lived, but the judge said there were other people who lived there. She did agree with the government that he’d violated the Utah judge’s orders by buying an iPhone and by providing an Infowars producer with website links to put onscreen during his interview.
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Sullivan didn’t deny going inside the Capitol on Jan. 6. He participated in interviews with FBI agents twice before his arrest and told them that he’d climbed through a broken window to enter the Capitol wearing a ballistic vest and gas mask. He claimed that he went in as both an activist and a journalist. The government disputed that he was only inside the building to record what was happening, saying that he has admitted to not having any press credentials. Prosecutors noted the various times he was recorded in his own video expressing support for what was going on.
At another point in Sullivan’s video, someone is heard asking about people getting arrested, and he replies, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine, it’s only a little jail time. … I do this all the time,” according to charging papers.
Sullivan’s video footage captured him telling people inside the Capitol that he had a knife, according to the government, but he denied carrying one when he spoke to the FBI. He isn’t facing a weapons charge.
He went home to Utah after the Capitol riot. He was arrested on Jan. 13 and made his first appearance in the Utah federal district court two days later. The government asked to keep him in custody while his case was pending, arguing he posed a risk of interfering with witnesses in the investigation. A federal magistrate judge in Utah denied the request, concluding that prosecutors had failed to support that allegation.
The judge ordered home detention, which meant Sullivan could only leave his home for work, school, medical care, court, and a few other limited reasons. She also imposed the restrictions on his internet use and his work on behalf of Insurgence USA.
A week and a half after he was granted release, a probation officer notified the judge in Utah that Sullivan not only had violated the internet restrictions but that he’d done so at least four times. The court filing didn’t include details. The Utah judge held a hearing on Feb. 1 but didn’t rule on whether to send him back to jail, instead leaving it up to a judge in Washington, DC. (All of the Capitol insurrection cases are being prosecuted in Washington, but many defendants are making their first appearances before a judge in their local federal court after being arrested.)
Prosecutors elaborated in a Feb. 4 brief, arguing Sullivan had “flouted” the Utah judge’s order. During the Infowars interview, prosecutors noted that Sullivan talked about being banned on Facebook and buying a new phone to see if he could get around that ban.
“[T]he defendant has not merely run afoul of release conditions in this case; he has brazenly flouted them, in some cases flouting multiple conditions at once. Several violations apparently came on the heels of detailed instructions to the contrary by his supervision officer,” prosecutors wrote in the Feb. 4 detention memo. “The defendant’s actions demonstrate an unwillingness to grapple with the seriousness of his charges and a contempt for the courts and its proceedings.”
In his Jan. 26 Infowars interview with host Owen Shroyer, Sullivan said that he stood “by [his] actions and what [he does]” but insisted he was being unjustly prosecuted.
“I am definitely not responsible for anything that took place that day,” he said.