U.S. prosecutors asked a judge Friday to sentence the first Capitol riot defendant convicted at trial to 15 years in prison, following through for the first time on threats to seek enhanced terrorism sentencing penalties for individuals who reject plea deals in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on Congress.
Reffitt was convicted March 8 of five felony offenses, including obstruction of Congress’s meeting to certify the 2020 presidential election, interfering with police and carrying a firearm to a riot, and threatening his teenage son who turned him in to the FBI.
The defense for Reffitt, a 49-year-old former oil industry rig manager, asked for a below-guidelines sentence of two years in prison. But Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jeffrey S. Nestler and Risa Berkower sought a punishment that would be about three times longer than any sentence handed down to date in a felony Jan. 6 case, calling his case exceptional.
“Reffitt sought not just to stop Congress, but also to physically attack, remove, and replace the legislators who were serving in Congress,” prosecutors wrote. They called his conduct “a quintessential example of an intent to both influence and retaliate against government conduct through intimidation or coercion,” the statutory definition of terrorist violence subject to harsher punishment.
Reffitt “played a central role” at the head of a vigilante mob that challenged and overran police at a key choke point, and conventional sentencing rules are of “inadequate scope” to account for the range of his offenses, they wrote in a 58-page sentencing memo.
A jury found that Reffitt traveled to D.C. from his home in Wylie, Tex., with an AR-15-style rifle and semiautomatic .40-caliber handgun and repeatedly stated his intention to come armed with a handgun and plastic handcuffs to drag lawmakers out of the building. After returning from Washington, he threatened his children not to turn him in to authorities.
The request by the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C., which is overseeing prosecutions of roughly 835 Capitol siege defendants federally charged so far, is not binding at Reffitt’s Aug. 1 sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich.
The longest sentence in a Jan. 6 case handed down to date is about five years for a Florida man who pleaded guilty to attacking police with a fire extinguisher and wooden plank.
Prosecutors may be hoping Reffitt’s trial judge sends a clear signal to the roughly 330 defendants still awaiting trial on felony charges and who may still be considering whether to accept a plea deal or gamble before a jury. About 70 people have pleaded guilty, and 10 including Reffitt have been convicted at trial.
Some congressional Democrats have pressed Justice Department officials to explain why prosecutors had not sought tougher sentences in Jan. 6 cases by seeking enhancements for terrorism. They have pointed to remarks this year from Attorney General Merrick Garland, who suggested such enhancements could come as prosecutors win convictions in more-serious cases.
“That attack, that siege, was criminal behavior, plain and simple, and it’s behavior that we, the FBI, view as domestic terrorism,” FBI Director Christopher A. Wray testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in March 2021, warning that the Capitol riot had emboldened some actors and that the problem of homegrown violent extremism is “metastasizing.”
Defense attorneys decry the threat of applying such enhancements in plea talks as coercive, calling them the “nuclear option” because prosecutors can ratchet up sentencing-guidelines ranges by 50 percent or more, even for offenses not designated by statute. However, the final decision is up to judges in any case, whatever the recommendation.
Reffitt attorney F. Clinton Broden urged Friedrich to weigh his client’s unique circumstances, view his actions as an “aberration,” and avoid sentencing disparities with already sentenced Jan. 6 felony defendants convicted of violent assaults on police or bringing more weapons to Washington.
Reffitt left home at 15, moved in with his older sister and began working as a KFC dishwasher after enduring years of physical abuse from his father, who used “belts, switches and occasionally smacks or fists,” Broden wrote. After becoming a father himself, Broden said, Reffitt was devoted to his children and to creating safe spaces for others. Reffitt, his attorney said, was a self-made man who took his family abroad while he worked in places like Malaysia in charge of operations worth tens of millions of dollars, but was financially and emotionally devastated after a downturn in the oil and gas industry. He lost his job in November 2019, only a few months before the pandemic swept the United States.
Reffitt’s daughters noticed that “his mental health was declining” over that period, Broden wrote. Reffitt fell “down the rabbit hole of political news and online banter,” wrote one of his daughters, and he fell under the sway of Donald Trump “constantly feeding polarizing racial thought.”
“I could really see how my father[’]s ego and personality fell to his knees when President Trump spoke, you could tell he listened to Trump’s words as if he was really truly speaking to him,” his daughter said.
Many letters from nine friends and relatives produced to the court by Reffitt’s defense “describe a depressed man who believed he was unable to adequately provide for his family (his life’s mission), and a man who felt cast aside and marginalized,” Broden said.
Reffitt started a security business and joined the Three Percenters in Texas. The right-wing anti-government group is named after the myth that only 3 percent of colonists fought in the American Revolution against the British.
At the Capitol, Reffitt never entered the building, unholstered his handgun or committed any violence, his attorney said. Without condoning Reffitt’s “paranoid statements” to his children, Broden argued that he never gave any indication he would actually harm them.
Reffitt has also spent 19 months in unusually harsh pretrial detention conditions at the decrepit D.C. jail, spending about half that time under 22- or 23-hour-a-day pandemic-related lockdowns in his cell, his lawyer argued.
“The very fundamental question that must be answered is, should Mr. Reffitt who did not engage in any violence, did not throw any objects at police, did not attack police with any weapons,” and did not enter the Capitol or breach restricted areas for long “be treated similarly to those that did?” Broden asked.
In a letter to the judge, Reffitt outlined a string of family traumas since 2020 including medical and mental health emergencies and pleaded for leniency for the sake of his family.
“My regrets for what has happened is insurmountable. There’s not a day go by that I don’t regret how much this has affected [my wife and kids],” Reffitt wrote. “Yes, what is happening to my family is all my fault, I would like to fix it, please. … I simply ask for a chance to prove myself again.”