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

Judges are rejecting arguments from some Jan. 6 defendants who say they were acting out of patriotism. (John Minchillo/AP)

A federal judge rejected claims that detained defendants in the Jan. 6 Capitol breach are “political prisoners” or that riot participants acted out of patriotism before sentencing a Michigan man to six months in prison Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson of Washington said Karl Dresch, 41, of Calumet, Mich., was held because of his actions, not his political views, and that others who joined the attack on Congress as it met to confirm the results of the 2020 presidential election could face prison time.

“He was not a political prisoner,” Jackson said. “We are not here today because he supported former president Trump . . . He was arrested because he was an enthusiastic participant in an effort to subvert and undo the electoral process.”

In a deal with prosecutors, Dresch pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of parading, picketing or demonstrating in the Capitol after four other charges were dropped, including a felony count of obstructing an official proceeding of Congress.

Dresch has been jailed since his arrest Jan. 19, so the sentence is effectively one of time-served, and he will be released.

Jackson’s sentencing came days after four right-wing Republican members of Congress — Reps. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Louis Gohmert (R-Tex.), and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — showed up at the D.C. jail demanding to inspect the treatment of those detained in connection with Jan. 6, whom some Trump supporters have cast as martyrs.

By contrast, in a string of plea and sentencing hearings in the riot cases, federal judges appointed by presidents of both parties condemned such claims. Some have gone further to challenge U.S. prosecutors’ acceptance of misdemeanor plea deals for individuals involved in “terrorizing members of Congress,” forcing the evacuation of lawmakers and violence that authorities have led to several deaths and assaults on nearly 140 police officers.

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“Does the government, in agreeing to the petty offense in this case, have any concern about deterrence?” Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell of Washington asked in accepting such a plea last Thursday.

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In Dresch’s case, Jackson said he has the right to vote for whomever he wants, “but so does everyone else. Your vote doesn’t count any more than anyone else’s. You don’t get to cancel them out and call for a war because you don’t like the results of the election.”

The judge continued, “You called yourself and the others patriots, but that’s not patriotism. Patriotism is loyalty to country, loyalty to the Constitution, not loyalty to a single head of state. That’s the tyranny we rejected on July 4th of 1776.”

Dresch declined to address the court, and his defense’s sentencing request was not immediately unsealed.

Judges at sentencings have been delivering a cold splash of reality to defendants, including some who say they were lied to by Trump or led astray by right-wing commentators or social media. So far, about 30 of more than 550 defendants charged have pleaded guilty, and six have been sentenced. Five of the latter admitted to single misdemeanors involving no violent conduct, and three received probation, including a Northern Virginia couple, Joshua Bustle, 35, and Jessica Bustle, 36, ordered Wednesday to 30 and 60 days of conditional home confinement, respectively.

The two others — Dresch and Michael Curzio, 35, of central Florida — have been sentenced to the statutory maximum of six months in prison or time served. Neither was accused of violence on Jan. 6, but each had a criminal record and other factors that U.S. magistrate judges said posed a risk of flight, obstruction or dangerousness warranting pretrial detention.

Curzio was the only misdemeanor defendant held pretrial, but had a prior conviction for attempted murder. Dresch had a 2013 felony conviction for eluding police in a 145-mph vehicle chase that spanned two states. And despite a ban on felon possession of weapons, law enforcement searches of his Upper Peninsula home on Jan. 19 turned up a Russian SKS rifle, two shotguns, a Glock pistol and more than 100 rounds of ammunition, prosecutors said.

Unlike Curzio, Dresch was also charged with “corruptly . . . obstruct[ing]” Congress, a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Prosecutors said in Facebook posts Dresch likened events on Jan. 6 beforehand to this country’s declaration of independence from British rule in 1776.

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Afterward, he posted, “We the people took back our house . . . now those traitors Know who’s really in charge.”

In sentencing papers, prosecutors said in a footnote without further explanation that they dropped the felony charge “in an effort to achieve consistency” with other riot cases. Prosecutors maintained that “he knew why he was there — to interfere with the democratic process — and what he sought to achieve — the disruption of the counting of electoral votes,” but noted he was not accused of violence or destruction.

Jackson called the misdemeanor plea and sentence just and sufficient, adding that pandemic-related lockdown restrictions made his jail time harsher than it would have been otherwise.

Comments by Jackson, Dresch’s judge and a 2011 Barack Obama appointee, were seconded Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, a 1983 Ronald Reagan appointee, who sentenced the Bustles.

Hogan said he seriously considered jailing Jessica Bustle because her social media posts calling Jan. 6 participants “patriots” were “so inaccurate, so misguided.”

“Patriots are not the ones who attack the operations of Congress” or attempt to stop elected lawmakers in both parties from performing their constitutional duties, Hogan said. “That is revolution, not patriotism.”

Hogan noted authorities attributed several deaths to the riot, including responding police officers who have died by suicide.

“If you listened to the testimony on the Hill the other day, you understand the tragedy that has occurred in their lives,” Hogan said, adding that holding those responsible may require jail time for most charged defendants.

But Hogan noted neither Joshua Bustle, a real estate agent, nor Jessica Bustle, a vaccine critic and stay-at-home mother, acted violently and spent only a few minutes in the Capitol. He also acknowledged defense arguments that the couple has been punished in the court of public opinion, in Joshua Bustle’s business affairs and in their family life. The couple is relocating to South Carolina for a fresh start, their lawyers said. Both Bustles apologized, and a lawyer asserted they had purged social media from their lives.

“I’m sorry for my actions. I love our country,” Jessica Bustle said. “I [don’t] condone and do not agree with anybody who is ever violent toward anybody in life.”

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The Jan. 6 insurrection

The report: The Jan. 6 committee released its final report, marking the culmination of an 18-month investigation into the violent insurrection. Read The Post’s analysis about the committee’s new findings and conclusions.

The final hearing: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol held its final public meeting where members referred four criminal charges against former president Donald Trump and others to the Justice Department. Here’s what the criminal referrals mean.

The riot: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. Five people died on that day or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.

Inside the siege: During the rampage, rioters came perilously close to penetrating the inner sanctums of the building while lawmakers were still there, including former vice president Mike Pence. The Washington Post examined text messages, photos and videos to create a video timeline of what happened on Jan. 6. Here’s what we know about what Trump did on Jan. 6.