Judges split in growing debate over harshness of punishment for Jan. 6 defendants

Two federal judges offer competing views in the debate over Jan. 6 sentences.

October 5, 2021, 5:05 PM

The growing debate over just how severely those involved in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol should be punished is now spilling into federal court, where two judges have offered seemingly competing views on the matter.

In a Monday sentencing hearing for a Texas man who had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge for joining the storming of the Capitol building, D.C. district judge Tanya Chutkan went beyond the sentence recommended by federal prosecutors, which she described as too lenient given the danger posed by the insurrection.

While prosecutors recommended three months under home confinement and probation for 37-year-old Matt Mazzocco, Judge Chutkan said in a ruling "there have to be consequences" for those involved in an attempted violent overthrow of a branch of the U.S. government, "beyond sitting at home."

"If Mr. Mazzocco walks away with probation and a slap on the wrist, that's not going to deter anyone trying what he did again," Chutkan said. "It does not, in this Court's opinion, indicate the severity -- the gravity of the offenses that he committed on Jan. 6."

She ultimately sentenced Mazzocco to 45 days in jail plus 60 hours of community service.

In her ruling, Chutkan went into detail to convey her disgust with the assault on the Capitol, and rejected comparisons between those who took part in the violence that day and protests that took place last year following the death of George Floyd.

"People gathered all over the country last year to protest the violent murder by the police of an unarmed man -- some of those protests became violent," Chutkan said. "But to compare the actions of people protesting mostly peacefully for civil rights to those of a violent mob seeking to overthrow the lawfully elected government is a false equivalency and ignores the very real danger that the Jan. 6 riot posed to the foundation of our democracy."

The remarks appeared to be an almost direct rebuke to a colleague of Chutkan's on the court, D.C. District Court Judge Trevor McFadden, who in a separate sentencing hearing on Friday pressed an assistant U.S. attorney over why he felt their office was more aggressively prosecuting Jan. 6 rioters than those who carried out violence in the city in the summer of 2020.

"I think the U.S. attorney would have more credibility if it was evenhanded in its concern about riots and mobs in this city," McFadden said, according to the Associated Press, which recently conducted an analysis of cases that stemmed from the protests following Floyd's death and found that many defendants received significant sentences.

Security forces respond with tear gas after the US President Donald Trump's supporters breached the US Capitol security in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.
LightRocket via Getty Images, FILE

McFadden's rebuke of the Justice Department came in a sentencing hearing for Danielle Doyle, an Oklahoma woman who prosecutors recommended receive two months of home confinement, a probationary term of three years, and 60 hours of community service. McFadden instead sentenced Doyle to only two months' probation and mandated she pay a fine of $3,000.

Most judges, however, have taken a harsher approach in overseeing the more than 620 cases brought thus far against Jan. 6 defendants -- with some being markedly critical of the Justice Department for not taking a more punitive approach in cases where they've declined to recommend any jail time or opted to drop certain charges against individuals willing to accept responsibility early on. More than 90 defendants have pleaded guilty so far to charges stemming from their participation in the riot, with six defendants, including Mazzocco, being sentenced to time in prison, including two who were sentenced to time already served in pre-trial detention. Multiple others have been given lighter sentences ranging from home confinement to two or three years of probation.

Last week, D.C. Judge Emmet Sullivan pressed prosecutors during a plea hearing as to why they declined to charge a Pennsylvania woman with making threats, when she had taped a video after the riot saying that she was "looking for [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi to shoot her in the friggin' brain, but we didn't find her."

"It's very troubling to hear someone say that the reason why they entered the Capitol on Jan. 6 was to essentially murder the Speaker of the House," Sullivan said. "Extremely troubling."

Sullivan asked the woman, Dawn Bancroft, to acknowledge that she had made the statement, and she said it was a "stupid, dumb comment" that was said in a "stupid jovial way" as she and a friend were heading to board a train out of D.C.

An image included in a criminal complaint shows two women, identified by the FBI as Dawn Bancroft and Diana Santos-Smith, in a grab from video at the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021.

Sullivan indicated that the comment might make him take a harsher stance toward Bancroft once she's up for sentencing on Jan. 7. Asked if she wanted to reconsider her plea, Bancroft declined.

"That's one of the large questions in this case," Sullivan said. "So many people up to Jan. 6 were outstanding members of the community, never been in trouble. We've got scores of letters from people, family members, friends, whatever, attesting to the character of individuals. But on Jan. 6 they morphed into terrorists."

In a separate hearing this past July, the chief judge in D.C.'s district court pressed prosecutors over whether their decision to enter into misdemeanor plea deals with certain rioters would be an effective deterrent against another mob that might seek to disrupt the electoral process in the future.

"I'm just curious, does the government have any concern given the factual predicate at issue here, of the defendant joining a mob, breaking into the Capitol building, wandering through the Capitol building and stopping a constitutionally mandated duty of the Congress?" Judge Beryl Howell said. "This could be a circumstance that arises every four years."

While declining to speak of any specific cases, Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday broadly defended decisions being made by prosecutors in their cases against accused Capitol rioters.

"I am quite aware that there are people who are criticizing us for not prosecuting sufficiently, and others who are complaining that we are prosecuting too harshly," Garland said in an appearance at the New Yorker Festival.

"This is, you know, part of the territory for any prosecutor in any case," Garland said. "I have great confidence in the prosecutors who are doing these cases."

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