Social media posts by Capitol Rioters influence sentencing

Many of the Jan. 6 rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Self-incriminating messages and photos, as well as videos, that they posted on social media are now influencing their criminal sentences.

Esat Zorkun
Esat Zorkun
12 December 2021 Sunday 11:25
157 Reads
Social media posts by Capitol Rioters influence sentencing

U.S. District Judge Amy Jackson listened to Russell Peterson's posts on the riot earlier this month before she sentenced the Pennsylvanian man to 30 days in prison. Peterson wrote on Facebook, "Overall I had fun lol."

Peterson was told by the judge that her posts made it difficult for her to show him leniency.

Jackson said that the 'lol’ was particularly memorable because, as you will see, there was nothing funny about January 6th. Jackson said, "No one was laughing while locked in a room or hiding under a table for hours."

One of the most important lessons from the Justice Department's prosecution for the insurrection is the large role that social media played. Most of the most damning evidence came from the words and videos of rioters.

FBI agents have identified scores rioters using public posts and records that were subpoenaed via social media platforms. The posts are used by the prosecution to build cases. Judges now use defendants' words or images to support harsher sentences.

More than 50 people were sentenced to federal charges related to the insurrection as of Friday. According to court records reviewed by the Associated Press, at least 28 of these cases involved prosecutors including a defendant's posts on social media in their request for harsher sentences.

Many rioters used social networks to glorify violence and spread hateful rhetoric. Some used social media to spread misinformation or promote conspiracy theories, while others used it to downplay their actions. A few defendants were also accused by the prosecution of trying to erase evidence via deleting posts.

About 700 people were charged with federal crimes in connection to the riot. Around 150 of them pleaded guilty. More than 20 defendants were sentenced to prison or terms in prison or time already served behind bars. More than a dozen other defendants were sentenced to home confinement.

Prosecutors and judges are not limited to the statements of Rioters, whether they make them in person or via social media. In sentencing memos from Justice Department, defendants should also be assessed for whether or not they caused any damage to property or violence, whether evidence was destroyed, how long they stayed inside the Capitol building, and whether or not they showed sincere remorse.

Dona Sue Bissey was recommended by the Indiana prosecutor to be placed on probation. Judge Tanya Chutkan, however, sentenced her for two weeks for her involvement in the riot. Judge Tanya Chutkan noted that Bissey had posted a screenshot from a Twitter posting that stated, "This was the first time that the U.S. Capitol has been breached since 1814 when it was attacked by British forces."

Chutkan stated that Ms. Bissey was not stricken with regret or remorse for the actions she took when she returned home. She is bragging and celebrating her participation in what amounts to an attempt overthrow of government.

FBI agents obtained a search warrant to search Andrew Ryan Bennett's account on Facebook after receiving a tip that the Maryland man was live-streaming video from the Capitol. Bennett wrote a message on Facebook two days before the riot that stated, "You better prepare chaos is coming, and I will be fighting for my freedom in DC on January 6th, 2021!"

Judge James Boasberg identified that position as an "aggravating factor" which weighed in favor of house arrest rather than a full probationary sentence.

Bennett was told by the judge that peaceful transfer of power following elections is the cornerstone of democracy. "What you did on January 6th was nothing but an attempt to undermine this system of government," Bennett said.

Senior Judge Reggie Walton pointed out that Lori Ann Vinson had publicly expressed pride about her actions at Capitol during TV news interviews and on Facebook.

"I get that emotions can sometimes get in the way. People do and say stupid stuff because it was absurd what was said. Is that enough to justify me giving a prison or jail sentence? Walton stated, "That's a difficult question for me to answer."

Vinson was initially sentenced to a one month sentence by the prosecution. However, Vinson was sentenced to five years probation by the judge. She also ordered Vinson to pay a $5,000 penalty and 120 hours of community service.

Felipe Marquez was convicted of posting photos to social media that hid serious mental health problems. The judge ruled that Felipe Marquez needed treatment and not incarceration. Marquez took cellphone videos of himself and other rioters in the office of Senator Jeff Merkley. The judge found that the posts were misleading. Marquez uploaded a YouTube video where he rapped about the riot experience to Shaggy's "It Wasn’t Me." lyrics that included "We even fist bumped police" and "We were taking selfies."

Marquez was seen wearing a T-shirt with the words "Property FBI" in the video.

Although the prosecution had suggested a four month sentence in prison, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras gave him three months of home confinement and mental-health treatment. He was then sentenced to probation. "I think you have serious issues that you need to address. He said that this played a significant role in my sentencing decision.

Andrew Wrigley was taught history by Judge Jackson before she sentenced him to 18 months probation. Wrigley shared a picture on social media showing him with a 1776 flag at the riot. The judge ruled that the gesture was not in honor of the nation's founders.

"The purpose of 1776 was to allow the people to decide who would be their ruler." Jackson stated that Jackson was attempting to prevent this from happening. Jackson stated that the attack on Capitol was meant to subvert democracy and to replace the will of people with the will the mob.

Video footage shows Scott Fairlamb, a New Jersey gym owner, punching a Washington police officer. Prosecutors said that his Facebook and Instagram posts indicated that he was ready to commit violence in Washington D.C. and had no regrets.

Senior Judge Royce Lamberth stated that other Fairlamb rioters would be "well advised to" join him in pleading guilty.

Lamberth stated that Fairlamb could not have won this case if he had been brought to trial on the evidence I saw, before he sentenced Fairlamb to 41 month imprisonment.

It worked out to one's advantage. Jacob Hiles, a charter boat captain from Virginia, likely avoided a harsher sentence by posting photos and videos of himself and his cousin at Capitol. Hiles was contacted by a Capitol officer via Facebook a day after the riot. He said that he shared Hiles' "political position" and encouraged him delete his incriminating posts. Prosecutors say this message was sent to Hiles on May 7, 2017.

Michael Angelo Riley, the officer, deleted Hiles' communications. However, investigators found Hiles' messages on Facebook. Prosecutors said that they were recovered by investigators. In October, Riley was charged with obstruction.

Jackson sentenced Hiles Monday to two years probation. Prosecutors suggested that Riley's case might not have been possible without Hiles' cooperation.

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