Jan. 6 rioters who attacked police get most prison time, but majority of those sentenced avoid jail

All prison terms longer than a year so far were either for assaulting police, parking a truckload of weapons near the Capitol or threatening House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or police.

Bart Jansen
  • Prosecutors said 99 of 171 sentences by May 11 carried no jail time.
  • Legal experts expect longer sentences for convictions in pending obstruction, sedition cases.
  • Among the 72 with jail terms, convictions for assaulting police carried the stiffest penalties.

WASHINGTON – The longest prison term in the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021, came Monday when Texan Guy Reffitt was sentenced to more than seven years behind bars. But legal experts expect multi-year sentences to become more common as misdemeanor plea bargains give way to convictions for rioters accused of more serious crimes like assaulting police, obstructing Congress and seditious conspiracy.

Reffitt, a member of the Three Percenters militia, was convicted by a jury of five charges including obstruction of an official proceeding and transporting a firearm in support of civil disorder. Prosecutors said Reffitt, wearing a holstered handgun and body armor, led others attacking police on the West Front of the Capitol and had threatened House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

"He and others contributed to the many assaults on law enforcement officers that day, putting countless more people – including legislators – at risk," said Matthew Graves, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.

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Nearly all of the 14 cases so far in which defendants received more than a year in prison involved assaults against police. A few cases resulted from threats against Pelosi or police. And in one case, a man parked a truckload of weapons near the Capitol.

The pace of charges and sentences without incarceration have been contentious throughout the Justice Department investigation that has charged more than 850 defendants in the riot. But sentences are getting longer as more serious cases are resolved. Trials are pending for extremists facing the most serious charges of seditious conspiracy, including members of the far-right groups Oath Keepers and Proud Boys.

Prosecutors filed a court document May 11 that said more than half the 171 sentences by that point ordered no jail time.

  • In the 99 cases in which defendants weren't put behind bars, prosecutors had asked for incarceration in half of them, but judges instead ordered probation or home detention. 
  • Among the 72 cases with jail terms, convictions for assaulting police and obstructing Congress carried the stiffest penalties. Federal guidelines called for four years in prison for aggravated assault when someone had no criminal record, but several sentences ran longer than that.

“Generally, I think these are pretty stiff sentences," said Jeffrey Cohen, a former prosecutor who is now an associate law professor at Boston College. “I suspect people who are getting these longer sentences were people who were instigating the violence and really trying to hurt these officers."

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Paul Rosenzweig, a former federal prosecutor and senior counsel on the Whitewater investigation of President Bill Clinton who now manages Red Branch Consulting for cybersecurity, said the charges and penalties generally make sense so far.

"It’s separating the idiots from the leaders," Rosenzweig said. “Just entering is a misdemeanor. Beating up on police is, ‘We’re going to throw the book at you.’”

A man who attacked police officers with poles during the Capitol riot has been sentenced to more than five years in prison. The sentence that U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan gave Mark Ponder matches the longest term of imprisonment so far among hundreds of Capitol riot prosecutions.

The 99 sentences without jail time came with home detention or probation, community service or restitution of $500 in most cases. Fines ran as high as $5,000 in five cases, whether the defendant was incarcerated or not.

In most of the 72 cases with incarceration, sentences ran no more than a couple of months. The 14 defendants facing a year or more in jail make up a small portion of all convicted defendants.

But more serious penalties for obstructing Congress or seditious conspiracy could mean longer sentences are looming.

“If they’re convicted of seditious conspiracy, I suspect those people will be seeing quite a long sentence," Cohen said. 

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Some of the toughest penalties went to people who assaulted police:

  • Mark Ponder, who was 56 at sentencing July 26, got 63 months in prison for assaulting three police officers by swinging poles at them, hitting their shields and shoulders.
  • Robert Scott Palmer, who was 54 at sentencing in December, got 63 months in prison for assaulting police with a wooden plank and fire extinguisher.
  • Duke Wilson, who was 68 when sentenced in March, got 51 months in prison for assaulting police by punching and kicking them, pulling down their shields and helmets, and striking them with a plastic pipe.
  • Devlyn Thompson, who was 28 when sentenced in December, got 46 months in prison for fighting police and striking one with a baton.
  • Nicholas Languerand, who was 26 when sentenced in January, got 44 months in prison, 24 months of supervised release and a $2,000 fine for fighting police and throwing objects at officers.

Other long sentences went to defendants who brought weapons to Washington or threatened officials.

  • Lonnie Leroy Coffman, who was 72 and a U.S. Army veteran when sentenced in April, got 46 months in prison for possession of an unregistered firearm and carrying a pistol without a license. He drove from Alabama and parked a truck near the Capitol filled with Molotov cocktails, a 9 mm handgun, a rifle, a shotgun, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, a crossbow, a machete and mason jars filled with homemade napalm.
  • Cleveland Meredith, who was 53 when sentenced in December, got 28 months in prison for threatening to kill Pelosi. He arrived in Washington after the riot but sent a series of threatening texts, including one about Pelosi saying he would put "a bullet in her noggin on Live TV." Police arrested him at a Holiday Inn a mile from the Capitol, where he had an assault-style rifle with a telescopic sight, a 9 mm semi-automatic firearm, more than 2,500 rounds of ammunition and multiple high-capacity magazines.

A large portion of the convictions have been for misdemeanors such as parading inside the Capitol. At a sentencing in October, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell questioned how prosecutors could argue the attack was a threat to democracy and then request sentences with little or no jail time.

“No wonder parts of the public in the U.S. are confused about whether what happened on Jan. 6 at the Capitol was simply a petty offense of trespassing with some disorderliness or shocking criminal conduct that represented a grave threat to our democratic norms,” said Howell, the district’s chief judge. “Let me make my view clear: The rioters were not mere protesters.”

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At a House Judiciary Committee hearing in October, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., asked Attorney General Merrick Garland about the pace of prosecutions after the first defendants were sentenced nine months after the worst attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812.

Garland defended the pace as “not really long at all” because of the complexity of the investigation, which involved 650 defendants at that point.

Jayapal also questioned whether lenient sentences would serve as a deterrent given the gravity of the attack, compared with yearslong sentences white supremacists received for the 2017 violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Garland said judges ultimately decide sentences.

“There are some judges that are criticizing the kind of charges we're bringing being not harsh enough, but there are other judges who are criticizing the same charges as being too harsh,” Garland said.

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Rosenzweig noted it's the largest criminal investigation in American history. Besides the attack on the Capitol, the investigation covers accusations such as submitting fake electors aiming to overturn the 2020 election and summoning the mob for the attack.

Cases of seditious conspiracy are pending against members of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. Convictions could yield sentences much longer than those handed down already because the charges carry maximum sentences of 20 years in prison.

“When those get finalized, those guys are going to get in the 10- to 20-year range, assuming they’re convicted," Rosenzweig said.

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