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Social media posts by rioters on Capitol Hill influencing convictions

For many rioters who stormed the United States Capitol on January 6, the self-incriminating messages, photos and videos they post on social media before, during and after the insurgency even influence their criminal convictions. .

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Amy Jackson read aloud some of Russell Peterson’s articles on the riot before sentencing the Pennsylvania man to 30 days in jail. “Overall I had fun lol,” Peterson posted on Facebook.

The judge told Peterson that her messages made it “extraordinarily difficult” for her to show him mercy.

“The ‘lol’ particularly stuck in my stomach because, as I hope you understood, nothing about January 6 was funny,” Jackson added. “No one locked in a room, curled up under a table for hours, was laughing.”

One of the main lessons learned from the DOJ’s counter-insurgency prosecutions so far has been the significant role of social media, with much of the most damning evidence coming from the spokespersons’ own words and videos. rioters.

FBI agents have identified dozens of rioters from public posts and subpoena tapes from social media platforms. Prosecutors use the posts to build cases. The judge now cites the words and images of the defendants as factors that call for tougher sentences.

As of Friday, more than 50 people were convicted of federal crimes related to the insurgency. In at least 28 of those cases, prosecutors have factored an accused’s social media posts into their demands for tougher sentences, according to an Associated Press court record review.

Many rioters took to social media to celebrate the violence or spew hateful rhetoric. Others have used it to spread disinformation, promote baseless conspiracy theories, or downplay their actions. Prosecutors also charged a few defendants with attempting to destroy evidence by deleting messages.

About 700 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the riot. About 150 of them have pleaded guilty. More than 20 defendants were sentenced to prison or prison terms or to terms already served behind bars. More than a dozen others have been sentenced to house arrest.

Statements by rioters, in person or on social media, are not the only consideration for prosecutors or judges. Department of Justice memos say the defendants should also be tried based on whether they engaged in violence or damaged property, whether they destroyed evidence, how long they spent in inside the Capitol, where they entered the building and whether they showed genuine remorse.

Prosecutors recommended probation for Indiana hair salon owner Dona Sue Bissey, but Judge Tanya Chutkan sentenced her to two weeks in prison for participating in the riot. The judge noted that Bisssey posted a screenshot of a message on Twitter that read: “This is the first time the United States Capitol has been violated since it was attacked by the British in 1814.”

“When Ms. Bissey returned home, she was not struck with remorse or regret for what she had done,” said Chutkan. “She celebrates and brags about her participation in what amounted to an attempt to overthrow the government.”

FBI agents obtained a search warrant for Andrew Ryan Bennett’s Facebook account after learning the man from Maryland broadcast a live video from inside the Capitol. Two days before the riot, Bennett posted a message on Facebook that read: “You better be ready, chaos is coming and I will be in Washington on 6/1/2021 fighting for my freedom !. “

Judge James Boasberg identified the post as an “aggravating” factor in favor of house arrest instead of a full probationary sentence.

“The cornerstone of our democratic republic is the peaceful transfer of power after the election,” the judge told Bennett. “What you and others did on January 6 was nothing less than an attempt to undermine this system of government.”

Senior Judge Reggie Walton noted that Lori Ann Vinson had publicly expressed her pride in her actions on Capitol Hill in television interviews and on Facebook.

“I understand that sometimes emotions get in the way and people do and say stupid things, because it was ridiculous what was said. But does that justify giving me a prison sentence or a prison sentence? It’s a tough question for me to ask, ”Walton said.

In Felipe Marquez’s case, the judge found that social media posts belied serious mental health issues that required treatment rather than incarceration. Marquez recorded videos of himself with other rioters in the office of Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. Back 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 punched the police” and “We were taking selfies”.

In the video, Marquez was wearing a t-shirt that read “FBI Property”.

Prosecutors had recommended four months in jail, but U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras sentenced him to three months of house arrest with mental health treatment, followed by probation. “I think you have some serious issues that you need to resolve. It played a big role in my sentencing decision, ”he said.

Prosecutors requested a one-month jail sentence for Vinson, but the judge sentenced the Kentucky nurse to five years probation and ordered her to pay a $ 5,000 fine and complete 120 hours of labor. of general interest.

Judge Jackson gave Andrew Wrigley a history lesson before sentencing the Pennsylvania man to 18 months probation. Wrigley posted on social media a photo of himself holding a 1776 flag during the riot. The judge said the gesture did not honor the nation’s founders.

“The goal of 1776 was to let the people decide who would govern them. But the purpose of the attack on Capitol Hill was to prevent that from happening, ”Jackson said. “The purpose of the attack on Capitol Hill was to overthrow democracy, to substitute the will of the people for the will of the crowd.”

Videos captured New Jersey gym owner Scott Fairlamb beating a policeman outside the Capitol. His Facebook and Instagram posts showed he was ready to commit violence in Washington, DC, and had no remorse for his actions, prosecutors said.

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 beaten that if you had been tried on the evidence that I saw,” Lamberth said before sentencing Fairlamb to 41 months in prison.

But it worked for the benefit of one. The captain of the charter boat in Virginia, Jacob Hiles, likely avoided a harsher sentence by posting videos and photos of him and his cousin on Capitol Hill. A day after the riot, Hiles received a private Facebook message from a Capitol Police officer who said he agreed with Hiles’ “political position” and encouraged him to delete his offending 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. Riley was charged in October with obstruction charges.

Jackson sentenced Hiles to two years probation on Monday. Prosecutors said the case against Riley might have been impossible without Hiles’ cooperation.

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Associated Press writer Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

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Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion