Capitol Rioters’ Social Media Posts Influencing Sentencings
The self-incriminating messages of many rioters, who stormed Washington’s Capitol Jan. 6, and the photos and videos they shared on social media during, and after, the uprising, are having an impact on their criminal sentence.
Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Amy Jackson read aloud some of Russell Peterson’s posts about the riot before she sentenced the Pennsylvania man to 30 days imprisonment. “Overall I had fun lol,” Peterson posted on Facebook.
The judge told Peterson that his posts made it “extraordinarily difficult” for her to show him leniency.
“The ’lol’ particularly stuck in my craw because, as I hope you’ve come to understand, nothing about January 6th was funny,” Jackson added. “No one locked in a room, cowering under a table for hours, was laughing.”
Among the biggest takeaways so far from the Justice Department’s prosecution of the insurrection is how large a role social media has played, with much of the most damning evidence coming from rioters’ own words and videos.
FBI agents identified scores of rioters using public posts and records obtained from social media platforms. The posts are used by the prosecution to help build their cases. Judge now are citing defendants’ words and images as factors weighing in favor of tougher sentences.
Over 50 persons were already sentenced in federal court for crimes connected to the uprising as of Friday. In at least 28 of those cases, prosecutors factored a defendant’s social media posts into their requests for stricter sentences, according to an Associated Press review of court records.
Many protesters took to social media to glorify violence or spread hateful messages. Some used social media to disinformation, spread conspiracy theories and downplay their actions. A few of the defendants were also accused by authorities of trying to erase evidence from posts.
About 700 have been accused of federal offenses related to the riot. A total of 150 people have pleaded guilty. More than 20 people have been sentenced, including to imprisonment or sentences or for time already spent behind bars. Another dozen were sent to home confinement.
Rioters’ statements, in person or on social media, aren’t the only consideration for prosecutors or judges. Justice Department memos state that defendants must be evaluated by their conduct in violence, damage to evidence and how long they stayed inside Capitol. They also need to consider whether they showed sincere regret.
Dona Sue Bissey was recommended by the Indiana prosecutor to be placed on probation. However, Judge Tanya Chutkan sent her to jail for her involvement in the riot. The judge noted that Bisssey posted a screenshot of a Twitter post that read, “This is the First time the U.S. Capitol had been breached since it was attacked by the British in 1814.”
“When Ms. Bissey got home, she was not struck with remorse or regret for what she had done,” Chutkan said. “She is celebrating and bragging about her participation in what amounted to an attempted overthrow of the government.”
FBI agents obtained a search warrant for Andrew Ryan Bennett’s Facebook account after getting a tip that the Maryland man live-streamed video from inside the Capitol. Two days before the riot, Bennett posted a Facebook message that said, “You better be ready chaos is coming and I will be in DC on 1/6/2021 fighting for my freedom!.”
Judge James Boasberg singled out that post as an “aggravating” factor weighing in favor of house arrest instead of a fully probationary sentence.
“The cornerstone of our democratic republic is the peaceful transfer of power after elections,” the judge told Bennett. “What you and others did on January 6th was nothing less than an attempt to undermine that system of government.”
Reggie Walton Senior Judge noted that Lori Ann Vinson had publicly expressed pride about her actions at Capitol in television interviews and via Facebook.
“I understand that sometimes emotions get in the way and people do and say stupid things, because it was ridiculous what was said. Is that enough to justify me giving either a jail or prison sentence? That’s a hard question for me to ask,” Walton said.
Vinson’s attorneys requested a one month sentence in jail. But the judge gave Vinson five years of probation, a $5,000 fine, and 120 hours of community work.
Felipe Marquez’s case was decided by the judge. He found that Felipe Marquez had serious mental problems and needed to be treated. Marquez recorded cellphone videos of himself with other rioters inside the office of Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. Back at home in Florida, Marquez posted a YouTube video in which he rapped about his riot experience to the tune of Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me.” with lyrics that included, “We even fist-bumped police,” and “We were taking selfies.”
In the video, Marquez wore a T-shirt that said, “Property of FBI.”
The prosecution recommended that he be sentenced to a four month sentence in jail, but U.S. District judge Rudolph Contreras instead sentenced him to three months at home with mental-health treatment and probation. “I do think you have some serious issues you need to address. That played a large role in my sentencing decision,” he said.
Andrew Wrigley received a lesson in history from Judge Jackson, before Jackson sent him on 18-month probation. Wrigley uploaded a social media photo of himself holding a 1776 Flag during the riot. The judge said the gesture didn’t honor the nation’s founders.
“The point of 1776 was to let the people decide who would rule them. But the point of the attack on the Capitol was to stop that from happening,” Jackson said. “The point of the attack on the Capitol was to subvert democracy, to substitute the will of the people with the will of the mob.”
Scott Fairlamb from New Jersey was seen punching outside the Capitol. According to prosecutors, his Instagram and Facebook posts proved that he had been ready for violence in Washington D.C.
Senior Judge Royce Lamberth said other rioters in Fairlamb’s position would be “well advised” to join him in pleading guilty.
“You couldn’t have beat this if you went to trial on the evidence that I saw,” Lamberth said before sentencing Fairlamb to 41 months in prison.
However, it was to one’s benefit. Jacob Hiles (charter boat captain in Virginia) posted photos and videos of his cousin and Hiles at the Capitol. This likely saved him from a more severe sentence. A day after the riot, Hiles received a private Facebook message from a Capitol police officer who said he agreed with Hiles’ “political stance” and encouraged him to delete his incriminating posts, according to prosecutors.
The officer, Michael Angelo Riley, deleted his communications with Hiles, but investigators recovered the messages from Hiles’ Facebook account, prosecutors said. In October, Riley was charged with obstruction.
Jackson sentenced Hiles Monday to two years probation. Prosecutors said the case against Riley may have been impossible without Hiles’ cooperation.
Lindsay Whitehurst, an Associated Press reporter from Salt Lake City, contributed to the report.