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Fearing political violence in 2024, judges sentence Jan. 6 defendants to probation through the next election

‘Damage from Jan. 6 persists,’ Republican appointees warn as Trump presses ‘false narrative’ that could mislead victims to commit new crimes

Pro-Trump rioters storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

U.S. judges including those appointed by Republican presidents are increasingly sentencing defendants who participated in the Jan. 6, 2021, breach of the Capitol to three-year terms of court supervision, fearing they could be misled into committing political violence in the 2024 presidential election.

A former truck driver from North Carolina on Monday became the first Jan. 6 defendant to receive a combination of a 60-day jail term and 36 months of probation. James “Les” Little, 52, pleaded guilty in February after telling the FBI that he saw President Biden’s election victory as “the second Bolshevik revolution” and warned agents and the Democratic Party of civil war if it were not overturned.

“I’m not proposing this, but I think to secure our freedoms, we’re on the brink of civil war,” Little told FBI agents who interviewed him a week after the attack on the Capitol, according to a recording played in court. In a YouTube video Little posted after the election titled “We Won’t Beat Them Next Time! There Won’t Be A Next Time! It’s Now Or Never!” the part-time delivery driver and patio store worker from Catawba County addressed the Democratic Party, saying supporters of President Donald Trump “owned lots of guns and God forbid we’d ever have to use it on you.”

U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth of Washington said Little’s explanations for his actions on Jan. 6 carried the seeds of a future threat.

“The Court must not only punish Little for his conduct but also ensure that he will not engage in similar conduct again during the next election,” Lamberth wrote in a 16-page opinion entered after a two-hour hearing. “Only a longer-term period of probation is adequate to ensure that Little will not become an active participant in another riot.”

Lamberth, a Ronald Reagan appointee, is among a growing number of judges who warn that the damage to democracy from last year’s assault on the peaceful transfer of presidential power is persisting as Trump has continued to whip a majority of Republican Party officials to embrace his false election fraud charges. Judges have also raised concerns about elected officials who continue to play down the violence of an attack that injured scores of police officers, ransacked lawmakers’ offices, caused more than $1.5 million in damage and disrupted a joint session of Congress.

“Many politicians are writing a false narrative about what happened. I think they are misleading people. … I am terribly afraid that people are going to follow that false narrative,” U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, another Reagan appointee, said in sentencing a 25-year-old Utah man to three years’ supervision this year.

Hogan said he was sentencing Jacob Kyle Wiedrich to supervision through the 2024 election “to make sure that you do not fall victim to false gods again.” The judge added that he feared participants “aren’t taking responsibility for what their role was and what they might do after the next election,” calling Jan. 6 an “unforgivable” day that will “affect this country for many years.”

U.S. judge: ’Democracy is in trouble’ when a mob prevents elected officials from both parties from fulfilling their constitutional duty

The Post obtained hours of video footage, some exclusively, and placed it within a digital 3-D model of the building. (Video: The Washington Post)

“We ride for Trump! We die for Trump!” Wiedrich shouted as he approached the Capitol, before he admittedly screamed at and taunted police trying to maintain security inside until he was restrained by others.

Like Little, Wiedrich pleaded guilty to a petty offense of illegal parading, punishable by no more than six months of incarceration.

U.S. prosecutors sought 30 days’ incarceration for Little — which the judge doubled — and a “split” sentence including supervision. The Justice Department has not requested such split sentences in Jan. 6 misdemeanor cases until recently because of murky legal precedent. Lamberth’s decision conflicts with a ruling by a Washington colleague, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, in sentencing a North Carolina woman who brought her 14-year-old son into the Capitol, inviting a federal appeals court to take up the question.

Little is the 15th Jan. 6 defendant sentenced this year to probation through Nov. 5, 2024, after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor, compared with 13 who received such lengthy supervisory terms over all of last year.

Capitol riot prosecutions one year later: U.S. judges lament sentencing limits, government plea deals

To date, about 225 people among more than 750 who were federally charged in the Capitol siege investigation have pleaded guilty, nearly 200 of them admitting to misdemeanors. Of the total charged, about half face felony counts such as assaulting police, rioting, carrying illegal firearms, obstructing Congress’s certification of the vote, or seditious conspiracy to prevent a presidential inauguration through force or intimidation.

About 120 have been sentenced, 51 of them to time behind bars, including 10 convicted of felonies. Those convicted of felonies have faced prison terms averaging 34 months, compared with 45 days for incarcerated misdemeanor offenders.

In first, U.S. prosecutors seek incarceration for Jan. 6 misdemeanor offenders

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael G. James of Raleigh, N.C., argued that even those charged with petty criminal offenses such as illegal parading at the Capitol made the actions of the mob possible, emboldening and facilitating those who engaged in violence, overwhelmed police and escaped arrest by finding safety in numbers. Little entered the Capitol despite seeing police fire pepper spray and plastic projectiles at a crowd whose members were scaling scaffolding and confronting police.

Assistant Federal Defender Peter S. Adolf of Charlotte disputed prosecutors’ claim that Little’s offense was more egregious because he photographed himself in the gallery overlooking the Senate floor, saying his client had no idea where he was before entering the chamber. Adolf also rejected arguments that Little should be treated differently than those spared jail, or that he posed any further danger.

“There’s a difference between believing whatever you see on TV, and being a person who is a danger in the future of acting on it,” said Adolf, adding that Little suffered from clinical depression, attention-deficit disorder, suicidal thoughts and a belief in conspiracy theories.

Not patriots, not political prisoners — U.S. judges slam Capitol riot defendants at sentencing

The defense attorney also warned judges that increasing punishment could provoke, not deter, further political violence.

“If you treat everyone the same, and treat them as a mob, you are vindicating the wild conspiracy theories of people who showed up,” Adolf said, adding that there are “a lot of folks who think the government doesn’t care about them, and that other people in places they’ve never been don’t treat them like human beings.”

Lamberth disagreed. Little expressed no remorse and blamed antifa, Black Lives Matter activists and police for the riot, even as he admitted wondering whether it was intended to provide cover for U.S. intelligence operatives to “raid” lawmakers’ offices and computers in a pro-Trump coup or declaration of martial law.

“Little’s criminal conviction is not the result of a ‘setup’ or ‘trap’ — he chose to engage in criminal conduct on January 6, despite the obvious indicators at the Capitol that his conduct was wrongful,” Lamberth wrote.

“The riot was not ‘patriotic’ or a legitimate ‘protest’ — it was an insurrection aimed at halting the functioning of our government,” the judge wrote. And when Little asked for leniency to be able to care for his mother, he did not apologize for his actions, but criticized the FBI for not advising him of his Miranda rights — even though he was not arrested and was informed he could wait to talk until after he had an attorney — and requested that he be permitted to continue using firearms, the court noted.

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