5 takeaways from the Capitol riot criminal cases, one year later
NPR has been tracking every criminal case related to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. One year after the riot, here are some of the key patterns that have emerged from the cases.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
In the year since a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, the FBI has arrested more than 700 people for their alleged roles in the chaos and destruction that day. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in his speech today that the Justice Department is moving at, quote, "record speed and scale" to hold people responsible for the attack and that work continues.
Investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach has been tracking all of these cases, along with a team here at NPR. Tom joins us now. Hi, Tom.
TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Hey.
CHANG: All right. So can you just give us a sense of where the criminal investigation stands at this point?
DREISBACH: Right. The FBI calls the Capitol riot an act of domestic terrorism, and it's the Bureau's most sweeping investigation in its history. As you said, they've arrested more than 700 people, and they continue to make arrests it feels like almost every day. The charges so far range from people who are accused of entering and walking around the Capitol but not committing violence to more severe charges - people who allegedly used dangerous weapons to assault police or even conspired for weeks or months to plan the attack.
Today, in that speech from Attorney General Merrick Garland, he said something interesting about how investigations like this work. Essentially, he said, they start with the low-hanging fruit.
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MERRICK GARLAND: We build investigations by laying a foundation. We resolve more straightforward cases first because they provide the evidentiary foundation for more complex cases. Overt actors and the evidence they provide can lead us to others who may also have been involved.
DREISBACH: Garland said they - investigators are following the money. They're looking at involvement of people, quote, "at any level" and whether they were actually there that day in Washington on January 6 or not.
CHANG: OK, interesting. So more layers to come, but of the people already charged, I am curious about how many of them have actually been convicted.
DREISBACH: Right. And so far, there's not been a single trial. We expect those to start later this year. But more than 170 people have pleaded guilty. A little less than half of the people who have actually been sentenced, the smaller subset of that, they've gotten jail or prison.
The longest sentence so far is around five years in prison. That was for someone who attacked police with a fire extinguisher. On the low end, however, people have received time on probation or home confinement. And those are people, typically, who commit misdemeanors. The most high-profile cases, however, are mostly still working their way through the courts.
CHANG: OK. And how would you say judges are thinking through the sentencing piece of this? Like, what themes are coming up in their reasoning?
DREISBACH: I mean, very carefully is how I would describe their thinking. I mean, you get the sense they're struggling to figure out how to sentence people. The word you hear all the time is unprecedented. And they talk some about sending a message that people who commit violence need to face stiff punishment.
The people who plead guilty, you know, they often express remorse. They'll talk about how they think Donald Trump lied to them, misled them. They regret what they did.
But in one case, a woman pleaded guilty, and she sounded remorseful at sentencing and received probation. Then she later went on Fox News and kind of downplayed what she had done in the riot. And the judge who sentenced her has since said that he felt like he was played. And so the experience in that case has had ripple effects on how other judges think about sentencing.
CHANG: Well, Tom, I know that you've been investigating this for almost a year now, and I understand that you are not a judge, but what do you think? Do these punishments fit the crimes?
DREISBACH: It's a really tough question, and I hear from people on all sides of that question all the time. Perceptions of January 6, as I think everyone knows, are really polarized on political lines. NPR's own polling has found that almost 1 in 5 Republicans believe a total conspiracy theory - that it was not Trump supporters who attacked the Capitol, but actually leftist agitators with antifa or even government agents.
Even the judges themselves don't all agree. I mean, some feel like the Department of Justice is letting people off easy. On the other hand, one judge has said that he feels suspicious that, in his view, people who rioted during the racial justice protests in 2020, he felt, are getting lighter treatment than Capitol rioters. And then I've heard other judges talk about why they are concerned that people who inspired the mob are not being charged while the people who were there have been.
CHANG: That is NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach. Thank you so much.
DREISBACH: Thanks, Ailsa.
CHANG: And there are new arrests all the time. Tom and the team are tracking them. You can see for yourself on npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.