Judge in Trump's election interference case rejects 'hostages' label for jailed Jan. 6 defendants

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The judge overseeing former President Donald Trump's election interference case rejected the notion Wednesday that jailed defendants charged with some of the most violent crimes of the U.S. Capitol riot are “hostages” — a label Trump and his allies have frequently used to describe the prisoners.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said the Capitol riot defendants who remain jailed in Washington, D.C., don't deserve to be called hostages or heroes for their actions during the mob's attack on Jan. 6, 2021.

“They're being kept there because they are dangerous people,” Chutkan said during a sentencing hearing for Antony Vo, a man convicted of storming the Capitol with his mother.

During his trial, Vo attended a nightly vigil that supporters of Jan. 6 riot defendants hold outside the Washington jail. The judge previously ruled that Vo's attendance at the vigil violated a condition of his release.

Chutkan rolled her eyes and shook her head when she learned from a prosecutor during Wednesday's hearing that the vigil's organizers refer to their gathering spot outside the jail as “Freedom Corner.”

“Is that what's it's called? Freedom Corner?” the judge asked, sounding incredulous.

At a November 2023 campaign event in Houston, Trump referred to the jailed riot defendants as “J6 hostages, not prisoners." Trump campaign rallies have started with a recording of jailed Capitol riot defendants singing the national anthem. In June 2023, Trump spoke at a fundraiser benefiting Jan. 6 defendants.

“I’m gonna make a contribution,” Trump said. “There have been few people that have been treated in the history of our country like the people that you love, like the people that have gone through so much.”

Trump's trial in Washington for the election interference case was scheduled to start March 4, but Chutkan agreed to place the case on hold while the former president pursues his claims that he is immune from prosecution. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments for Trump's appeal later this month.

Chutkan didn't mention Trump's name during Wednesday's hearing, where she sentenced Vo to nine months of imprisonment. A jury convicted Vo of four misdemeanor counts related to the riot. His mother also has been charged with Jan. 6-related crimes.

More than 1,300 people have charged with federal crimes related to the Capitol riot. The vast majority of them have remained free while awaiting trial or a plea deal to resolve their case.

Chutkan told Vo, 31, of Bloomington, Indiana, that he was fortunate that she didn't order him jailed after his trial conviction. She said he has consistently refused to express remorse or accept responsibility for his conduct on Jan. 6.

“He has doubled down on his behavior,” she said.

Before learning his sentence, Vo said he is “sorry for everything” and knows he shouldn't have entered the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“I wasn't there to overthrow any democratic process or anything,” he told the judge.

In his bio for a social media account, Vo has called himself a “J6 wrongful convict.” In a post after his trial, he wrote that “there was zero jury of peers and 100% a kangaroo court."

“I've been called worse,” Chutkan said, stressing that she wasn't punishing Vo for his insult or his political beliefs.

“I'm thick-skinned,” the judge added.

Chutkan has stood out as one of the toughest punishers of Capitol rioters, often handing down prison sentences that are harsher than prosecutors' recommendations. Vo's attorney, Carmen Hernandez, told Chutkan that she appears to be an “outlier” compared to other judges who have sentenced Jan. 6 defendants.

“I may be an outlier, as Ms. Hernandez suggests. I don't necessarily think I am,” Chutkan said.