The chief judge in DC’s federal court questioned the Justice Department’s decision to offer misdemeanor plea deals to nonviolent US Capitol rioters, saying at a hearing Thursday that the relatively light punishment might not be enough to deter similar attacks in the future.
“Does the government have any concern … of the defendant joining a mob, breaking into the Capitol building” in the future, and “terrorizing members of Congress, the vice president, who had to be evacuated,” Chief Judge Beryl Howell asked prosecutors during the plea hearing.
“This could be a circumstance that arises every four years,” Howell added.
The defendant, Jack Griffith, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of illegally demonstrating in the Capitol building, which has become the standard plea deal that the Justice Department has offered to nonviolent rioters. The charge is a “petty offense,” Howell said, comparing it to the same charge someone might face if they trespassed on government property after dark.
Federal prosecutors pushed back, saying the plea bargain was appropriate because Griffin signaled early in the process that he was willing to plead guilty and help the probe if needed.
Howell appears to be the first judge to question the Justice Department’s misdemeanor plea offers for participants in the January 6 insurrection, though other judges have discussed how to weigh the seriousness of the attack while sentencing nonviolent rioters with no criminal record.
The Capitol riot cases are unfolding in DC District Court, where Howell is the chief judge. She has set the tone for many of these proceedings with her in-court comments and rulings. Early in the process, she forcefully condemned the insurrectionists, rejected claims that January 6 was a “peaceful protest,” and highlighted the ongoing threat posed to the Capitol and DC residents.
Assistant federal prosecutor David Goodhand speaks to US District Judge Beryl Howell on March 27, 2019.
Prosecutors say that Griffith was caught on video walking around the Capitol and later bragged about his participation on Facebook. He faces a potential maximum of six months in jail, though he may be ordered to serve much less, or even no jail time, when he is sentenced in October.
Howell also pointed out that the cooperation required by Griffith’s plea deal, and similar deals for low-level Capitol rioters, is “far more limited than the normal cooperation agreement,” which could require defendants to testify at grand juries or hearings, which seems unlikely in this case.
As part of the plea deal with prosecutors, Griffin also agreed to pay $500 in restitution, sit for interviews with law enforcement, and give federal investigators access to his social media data.
A Brazilian national also pleaded guilty Thursday to the same misdemeanor – a plea notable because he was initially charged with a felony for obstructing government proceedings.
As part of the deal, prosecutors agreed to drop the felony count and other misdemeanor counts against Eliel Rosa, who lives in Texas and reportedly sought asylum in the US a few years ago.
Rosa is now the first person charged with a felony to get a misdemeanor plea offer from the Justice Department. Prosecutors did not explain the reasoning of the change.
Rosa was not accused of violence on January 6, and unlike other rioters who were charged with obstructing the proceedings, there’s no indication that he voiced his intention to block Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s victory.
So far, 27 people have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the Capitol riot. The Justice Department has charged more than 550 people in the attack, according to CNN’s latest tally.
This story has been updated with additional details.
CNN’s Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.