When the broadcast networks showed D.C. police officer Daniel Hodges being smashed against a door, she felt she was being crushed, too.
But as the demand for public counsel grew, the Criminal Justice Act panel attorney softened her original terms: She would only defend people who didn’t hurt a police officer.
Shaner is charged with the defense of a handful of people who entered the Capitol on Jan. 6. Though she’s not assigning her clients homework, she is encouraging them to read about history and write what they’ve learned. She wants to help them learn about the past to better understand their place in it.
Critics of her methods don’t think a civics lesson can change an insurrectionist — or they think she’s putting her clients through a reeducation program. She’s been called a traitor, Nazi, communist and worse.
But before the flurry of court cases and charges and debates over repeating the past, Shaner was sitting at her neighbor’s house, transfixed as footage of the riot played over and over.
It felt like 9/11, she said. She couldn’t look away.
The rioters’ defense
The front window of the 74-year-old’s Dupont Circle home and office, where she has lived since it was a group home decades ago, is adorned with a sign that reads “DISARM HATE.” When she moved in, she paid $110 a month to rent the house’s tiniest room.
Large lettering on the roof reads, “NO BAN NO WALL NO WAR,” which she said her husband painted for President Donald Trump to see from his helicopter.
When Shaner took a handful of cases from the insurrection, she did what she thinks every good defense attorney does: found the humanity in her clients.
“What happens is when you’re watching television on January the 6th, they’re monsters,” she said. “Then when you get assigned them, potentially they’re human beings. And then as you get to know them and work with them, you see all the mitigating influences.”
Shaner said many of her clients are victims of misinformation and lack of information, and some of them are learning from the upheaval they participated in.
“People came for a whole lot of different reasons,” she said. “None of them based on understanding factually what was happening in the Capitol that day.”
Shaner has told all of her Jan. 6 clients, except the family she was just assigned, to read books and go back to school. If they took a class or read a book, she asked them to send their grades or a report.
She sent everyone a link to the Constitution and free online civics courses and asked them to let her know if they wanted a list of books and movies about history.
The list was fluid. She would suggest some titles to one person, add more as she thought of them and then pass the list along to someone else — if they were interested.
Shaner said she included options such as “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” “Just Mercy” and “Schindler’s List” to offer a base of historical knowledge.
She said the reports might not help at sentencing, but they couldn’t hurt.
But many have the question CNN’s John Berman asked Shaner on air: “As my grandmother used to say, ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Just Mercy,’ what does that have to do with the price of fish in Russia? What does that matter here?”
An unusual method
Shaner is not a traditional attorney. She does not wear suits to court, favoring tunics and interesting handmade jewelry. She hugs prosecutors and judges.
As one former federal prosecutor who argued against Shaner put it, she’s “the one attorney who’s a grandmother with purple hair who appears in court regularly.”
“Heather is petite in stature and enormous in spirit, and nothing will deter her continuing what she’s doing,” Christopher Macchiaroli said.
She meets with clients at her house and has given them clothes from her closet. She says she babysits their children, if they need it. She sends them money. She lets them sleep on her couch when they don’t have anywhere to go.
She’s one-of-a-kind, friends and colleagues say, and a fixture of the D.C. courts.
“Most of the prosecutors and the judges know that when her name is on the calendar representing somebody, that person is well represented,” said Thomas Crossley, an investigator who’s known Shaner for decades. “And that she is going to do everything possible to defend her client.”
Shaner’s reading-and-watching list method — which The Indianapolis Star reported on in late June — seemed unconventional to the public, but not to her. She’s been giving her clients books and other materials for decades.
She’s sent them dictionaries, novels, poetry and more. She’s asked judges to grant them permission to have reading glasses. Education, to her, is paramount.
Books hold power, Shaner said. It’s like the message of the Magic Tree House series, which her granddaughter enjoyed: Books can transport you away from your circumstances. She’d seen it firsthand.
During her first job out of college, where she said she watched over abused and neglected children, she would stay late and sit in the facility’s bathroom to read to two particularly bright boys. They learned quickly, she said.
In her next job working with incarcerated youth in Pennsylvania, Shaner recalled meeting a whip-smart boy nicknamed Tweety Bird. With her help, he learned to read, and eventually Shaner said she contacted his father and convinced him to “take an interest.”
“It was kindness and love, but it was also books,” she said.
Kim, a former client who asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her privacy, was in a bad place and struggling with drug abuse when she met Shaner. She said the lawyer helped her find treatment, gave her literature to learn about addiction and was always there to talk to her — not just as a client, but as a person.
Shaner believes in making the world a better place with knowledge, Kim said. She wasn’t surprised to hear about the book reports.
‘You are a traitor’
Barbara McQuade, a professor of law at the University of Michigan and former U.S. attorney, called Shaner’s book report idea “novel.” She said it makes sense when you think about what judges consider during sentencing: Will this person commit a crime again? Have they been rehabilitated?
“This isn’t a gimmick,” Macchiaroli said. “This isn’t like putting glasses on a defendant to make him look more studious.”
An attorney representing another Jan. 6 defendant denigrated Shaner’s education-focused method when arguing his client couldn’t get a fair trial in D.C. The assumption that one of her clients is a “bigot” for supporting Trump “is beyond outrageous, yet typifies the attitude of many District residents,” he wrote. Shaner had not called her client a bigot.
Lawyers, pundits and critics from both sides of the aisle have attacked Shaner’s educational approach, though she said she’s heard from many more on the right than the left. On the right, she’s been accused of forcing her client into a reeducation program. On the left, she’s been lambasted for arguing a “traitor” has grown.
Shaner has represented people involved with convicted Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and multiple murderers and defendants in other high-profile cases. She gave them books, too, she said. But she had never received hateful emails or phone calls until now.
In the worst of the messages, Shaner either gets called a Nazi, communist or something profane, she said. Either she’s force-feeding her clients propaganda or defending the indefensible.
In one message left on her home phone, the speaker’s voice crackles a little.
“I don’t care if she was there for 10 seconds or 10 years,” they say. “Read “Schindler’s List” and then you’re a good person? Bulls---. She was a traitor, and you are a traitor for representing her. You are disgusting. You should be suspended. I don’t know why you’re even allowed to practice law. You shouldn’t be. No one should be representing traitors to this country. You are disgusting.”
Shaner’s niece, Rachel Pinkerton, said she’s worried the publicity around the Capitol riot cases could put her aunt in danger. She’s been worried about her before, but said the hateful messages are new and frightening.
But Shaner said it’s just part of the job. Her husband, Phil Palmer, said they refuse to live in fear.
Looking back, moving forward
Shaner wants to make a difference for her clients and country. If there’s healing and learning to be done, she hopes to be a part of it.
“She does it because that’s who she is, through and through,” Palmer said. “Every fiber in her body is made out of justice.”
Hate mail aside, Shaner has also received several supportive messages. A librarian contacted her to ask about finding a way to get more books into the jails. A retired prosecutor in Alaska called to praise her. Lawyers and friends from over the years have reached out, too.
A family charged in relation to the riot got in touch after reading about Shaner and asked her to represent them, she said. They thought she would treat them fairly.
Though there’s no way to measure the effectiveness of Shaner’s push to educate her clients, she’s confident some of them have grown.
Anna Lloyd, an Indiana grandmother who was the first person sentenced on Capitol riot charges, initially called Jan. 6 the “best day of my life.” She had been inside the Capitol for about 10 minutes, prosecutors said, and did not contribute to any violence or theft.
Lloyd later wrote about books and movies opening her eyes to injustice and apologized for her involvement. She continues to support Trump, who has repeatedly downplayed the riot.
Shaner said Lloyd has taken it upon herself to continue her education. She watches documentaries on the History Channel, Shaner said, and got a library card.
Another woman Shaner is representing from Jan. 6 changed her voter registration from Republican to Democrat, the lawyer said, and is going back to school to study political science. She was horrified watching the House select committee’s first hearings investigating the attack, Shaner said.
Shaner believes the women’s regret is sincere. She believes they’ve learned from their mistakes. And she believes reading books, while not fully responsible for that change, surely didn’t hurt.
“They change themselves, and that’s a voluntary process,” Shaner said. “Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t force anybody. People change, but you can only give them the opportunity to change and the tools. You can’t obligate anybody to change their ideas.”