The first U.S. Capitol riot defendant convicted at trial was sentenced to more than seven years in prison Monday, the longest punishment handed down to date over the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on Congress.
U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich condemned Reffitt’s conduct in handing down an 87-month sentence, saying in a nearly six-hour hearing that his views espousing political violence were “absurd,” “delusional” and “way outside of the mainstream.”
What Reffitt and others did at the Capitol “is the antithesis of patriotism,” Friedrich said, adding: “Not only are they not patriots, they are a direct threat to our democracy, and will be punished as such.”
Reffitt, who has proclaimed himself a “martyr” from prison, sought to legitimize efforts by himself and others to foment a rebellion against so-called government tyranny, “believing he was going to forcibly remove [state and federal] legislatures and install a new government that will be approved by judges and the Constitution,” the judge said.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing. And to this day, he has not disavowed these comments,” said Friedrich, a 2017 Trump appointee.
Reffitt had every right to his political views, to peacefully protest, and to support, vote for and associate with whomever he chose, Friedrich said, “but what Mr. Reffitt and hundreds of other Capitol riot[ers] did not have the right to do is to storm the Capitol, carrying firearms, trespass, refuse law enforcement commands or to resort to violence.”
Before Monday, the longest sentences handed down in the Jan. 6 cases were just over five years, for two men who assaulted police. The federal advisory sentencing range for Reffitt’s case was 87 months to nine years. The defense for Reffitt, a 49-year-old former oil industry rig manager, asked for a below-guidelines sentence of two years in prison. Attorney F. Clinton Broden said his client committed no violence and has no criminal history, yet prosecutors sought far more time for him than for defendants who have pleaded guilty to assaulting police, accusing the government of retaliating against Reffitt for going to trial.
“It makes a mockery of the criminal justice system, the Sixth Amendment right to trial and the victims assaulted by [others] to argue that Mr. Reffitt should be given a sentence greater than” the others, Broden told the court. “I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out why they are seeking an enhancement in this case.”
But Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jeffrey Nestler and Risa Berkower said Reffitt’s conduct was exceptional and put him “in a class all by himself” among defendants sentenced to date.
Reffitt “played a central role” at the head of a vigilante mob that challenged and overran police at a key choke point, a stairway leading up from the Lower West Terrace, before the initial breach of windows near the Capitol’s Senate Wing Doors at 2:13 p.m., prosecutors said. After the riot, Reffitt warned his son and 16-year-old daughter that “if you turn me in, you’re a traitor, and traitors get shot,” his son testified at the trial.
Conventional sentencing rules are of “inadequate scope” to account for the range of Reffitt’s obstruction, witness tampering and weapon offenses, prosecutors wrote in a 58-page sentencing memo.
“We do believe what he was doing that day was terrorism. We do believe he is a domestic terrorist,” Nestler said.
“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,” and said it reflected the statutory definition of terrorist violence that is subject to harsher punishment.
Reffitt recorded himself at a rally led by President Donald Trump at the Ellipse saying he was ready to drag lawmakers including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “out kicking and screaming,” with “[Pelosi’s] head hitting every step on the way down.”
A jury found that Reffitt traveled to D.C. from his home in Wylie, Tex., with an AR-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 home from Washington, he threatened his children to ensure they did not turn him in to authorities.
Reffitt also joined the Three Percenters in Texas and started a security business, telling recruits that by doing so he could circumvent gun restrictions. 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.
However, Friedrich refused to apply the discretionary terrorism sentencing enhancement, agreeing with the defense that prosecutors had not asked judges to do so for other defendants who like Reffitt had made “extremely disturbing” statements, but who unlike him committed violence.
Still, the judge said Reffitt took on a “self-appointed leadership role” outside the Capitol, encouraging and waving on a crowd behind him as he confronted police while carrying a handgun and megaphone. Reffitt was also wearing bulletproof body armor, a helmet and had plastic flex-cuffs, Friedrich said.
Friedrich said the fact that Reffitt was armed made his case “very different from all others prosecuted to date,” heightening the risk of serious injury to police “who courageously defended the Capitol, as well as to everyone else present that day.”
“Patriots honor and respect the rule of law,” the judge added, rebuking Reffitt. “There are plenty of people who feel that democracy isn’t working for them. There are unfortunately a lot in the United States right now who feel that way. But in a democracy, the answer to that frustration is not rebellion.”
The request by the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C., which is overseeing prosecutions of roughly 840 Capitol siege defendants federally charged so far, was not binding on Friedrich, who had gone below prosecutors’ recommendation in 22 of 24 Jan. 6 sentencings to date.
The longest sentence in a Jan. 6 case so far had been 63 months — given to a Florida man who pleaded guilty to attacking police with a fire extinguisher and wooden plank, and a D.C. man who assaulted three officers and shattered a riot shield with a pole.
By comparison, Friedrich has sentenced only three defendants who have pleaded guilty to felonies so far, the longest to 27 months in prison, also for attacking police.
Still, prosecutors hoped her final judgment would send 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 nine, including Reffitt, have been convicted at trial.
“Guy Reffitt came to the Capitol on Jan. 6 armed and determined to instigate violence,” U.S. Attorney Matthew M. Graves said in a statement. “In his own words, his goal was to take the Capitol ‘before the day is over.’ ” Graves said, adding that the “jury’s verdict and today’s sentence hold him accountable for his violent, unconscionable conduct.”
In a personal statement before the judge, Reffitt apologized to the three officers he confronted, to the court, lawmakers, congressional staff and all who were affected by his actions.
“I really hate what I did,” Reffitt said. “In 2020 I was a little crazy … I wasn’t thinking clearly.”
Reffitt said that going forward, he’ll “have nothing to do with politics.”
Friedrich said she hoped Reffitt meant what he said, but she warned that he would remain under court supervision for three years after completing his prison term if he engaged in future criminal conduct.
In sentencing papers, Broden wrote in his client’s defense that 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. 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 including 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 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,” one of Reffitt’s daughters wrote the judge in seeking leniency.
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.
In a letter to the court read by prosecutors, Reffitt’s son, Jackson Reffitt, said he supported prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation, so long as his father could benefit from rehabilitation and counseling in prison.
She asked the judge for leniency, saying Trump, not Reffitt, was ultimately responsible for what happened Jan. 6.
“My father’s name wasn’t on the flags that everyone was carrying there that day … There was another man’s name,” Peyton Reffitt told the court Monday. “He was not the leader.”
One of the Capitol Police officers who confronted the defendant, Shauni Kerkhof, said Reffitt “intended to harm members of Congress and to stop the certification of the electoral mob” after pushing past officers who “swore an oath to protect the Congress and the American people.”
Kerkhof said Reffitt’s writings justifying his actions made her “sick.”
“His actions weren’t the actions of a patriot. They were actions of a domestic terrorist. He was intent on harming fellow Americans and our democratic processes himself. This was a man who threatened his own children if they turned him in,” Kerkhof told the court.
In a statement after sentencing, Broden thanked Friedrich and said he was pleased that she ultimately handed down a penalty less than half of what the government sought, saying, “I think the judge recognized that the sentence sought by the government was sought to punish Mr. Reffitt for asserting his right to a trial and she rejected that attempt by the government.”