A federal judge thrashed the Justice Department on Thursday for offering “petty offense” plea deals to Jan. 6 defendants who she said tarnished America’s reputation in the world and enabled violent rioters to threaten the peaceful transfer of power — even if they committed no violence themselves.
Beryl Howell, the chief judge of the federal District Court in Washington, D.C., said prosecutors appeared “almost schizophrenic” in describing the insurrection in extreme terms but then settling for second-tier misdemeanor plea agreements with dozens of defendants.
“This is a muddled approach by the government,” said Howell, an appointee of President Barack Obama. “I’m trying to make sense of the government’s position here.”
Howell then made clear that she considered all participants in the Jan. 6 Capitol breach — which the Justice Department now estimates at 2,000 to 2,500 people — enablers of an assault against the republic.
“The damage to the reputation of our democracy, which is usually held up around the world … that reputation suffered because of Jan. 6,” Howell said, noting that the mob chased lawmakers and Vice President Mike Pence into hiding, and sent staffers ducking under their desks for cover.
“The rioters attacking the Capitol on Jan. 6 were not mere trespassers engaging in protected First Amendment conduct or protests,” Howell added. “They were not merely disorderly, as countless videos show the mob that attacked the Capitol was violent. Everyone participating in the mob contributed to that violence.”
Howell’s harsh words for the Justice Department came as she sentenced Jack Griffith of Tennessee to three years probation for breaching the Capitol for about 10 minutes on Jan. 6 amid the broader attack. Prosecutors had asked for a three-month jail term for Griffith, who faced a maximum of six months on the charge he pleaded guilty to, of “parading” or demonstrating inside the Capitol.
Howell’s decision was a highly anticipated milestone in the wide-ranging prosecution of more than 700 Jan. 6 defendants. She has taken a leading role in pressing prosecutors to consider the broader threat to democracy that the riot presented when considering charges and punishment for participants. And her words, as the chief of the District Court blocks from the Capitol, often carry more weight than those of her colleagues. She has consistently expressed alarm and skepticism about prosecutors’ ginger language and approach to some of the initial cases before her court — and she attributed public “confusion” about the seriousness of the Capitol attack to the government’s approach.
“After all that scorching rhetoric ... the government goes on to describe the rioters who got through the police lines and got into the building as ‘those who trespassed,’” Howell said. “This was no mere trespass.”
The judge indicated she considered the sentence she imposed on Griffith relatively light, but said it was the result of prosecutors’ decisions to resolve his case and others. Howell said there was a disconnect between the nearly apocalyptic language prosecutors have used in court filings about the Jan. 6 attack and what she called the “most minimal” charges the government settled for in plea deals.
“I don’t think it’s any secret to say that federal judges rarely deal with Class B petty offenses. This is not our normal diet of criminal conduct,” Howell said, adding that such crimes are typically resolved with “a $50 ticket.”
Howell said there were indications that prosecutors had displayed “sort of an evolving, changing position” in their sentencing recommendations related to Jan. 6. But she noted that federal law requires judges to avoid unwarranted disparities when sentencing defendants for similar conduct.
Howell also noted that the decision to allow many defendants to plead to petty offenses essentially stripped judges of the ability to alter the $500 restitution the government has agreed to in those cases.
“From where I sit, my hands are tied with respect to restitution,” the judge said.
Howell noted that even if every rioter paid the $500, it would amount to about $300,000, which she called “barely a drop in the bucket.” She estimated that the total cost of the riot — based on government spending to reimburse law enforcement agencies and repair damage to the Capitol — exceeded $560 million.
At one point, the judge asked whether officials as high as Attorney General Merrick Garland had weighed in on the sentences to be pursued in Capitol riot cases.
“I’m not aware of the specifics of how plea agreements have been run up the chain. I know they have been,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jamie Carter said.
During the lengthy sentencing hearing, Howell also emphasized that some of the judges have felt “played” by defendants who received light sentences by expressing remorse, only to recant after their cases were resolved. Howell specifically referenced the case of Anna Morgan-Lloyd, who took to Fox News after her sentence and said she didn’t witness any violence at the Capitol.
Morgan-Lloyd’s attorney Heather Shaner — who also represents Griffith — told Howell that Morgan-Lloyd was “played” by Fox host Laura Ingraham.
“It wasn’t a lack of remorse. It was her stupidity to go on that forum,” Shaner said of her client. “I felt humiliated, I felt betrayed.”
Griffith addressed Howell to express regret for his actions and suggest he never wished violence upon those in the Capitol — despite his embrace of pro-Trump election conspiracy theories and encouragement of those storming the building. But Howell said his contrition couldn’t be trusted, considering he has never repudiated his belief that the election was stolen and appeared driven to criminal conduct by misinformation.
“You’re not a lemming, Mr. Griffith,” she said. “You can think for yourself.”