Leaders in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol were sentenced to about 20 years in prison. Was that fair?

Enrique Tarrio rallying in Portland, Oregon
Proud Boy’s former chairman Enrique Tarrio rallies in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 17, 2019. AP Photo/Noah Berger, File

There were no precedents that judges could consider when sentencing the supporters of former President Donald Trump who were convicted in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, a Northeastern expert says, so the sentences cannot be viewed as “too harsh.”

Because there are no metrics, according to Jeremy Paul, professor of law at Northeastern University, the sentences are based on evidence provided by the government and the convictions by a jury.

Some of the leaders of the attack were sentenced to 15, 18, even 22 years in prison.  

headshot of Jeremy Paul
Northeastern University Professor of Law Jeremy Paul. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“If you see, the whole thing is the way the government has framed it, as all other pieces that they planned all along, to use the organizing power that they had amassed over the previous several years to disrupt and actually change the outcome [of the election] then it’s hard to say the sentences are too harsh,” Paul says.

“The typical answer to that would be, let’s look at three or four other similar cases and what kind of sentences were in those cases?” he says.

Anyone who trusts the jury system has reason to believe that justice was carried out in these cases, Paul says, because the jury voted to convict these leaders of the Jan. 6 attack based on the evidence provided by the government. 

On Sept. 5, U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly sentenced Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, 39, of Miami, a former leader of the Proud Boys, to 22 years in prison and 36 months of supervised release. This is the longest sentence, to date, related to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

Other co-conspirators, who also pleaded guilty to the federal charge of seditious conspiracy and were found guilty of multiple felonies, received sentences ranging from 15 to 18 years in prison. This year, Elmer Stewart Rhodes III, 58, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, and Kelly Meggs, 54, the leader of the Florida chapter of the organization, were sentenced to 18 and 12 years in prison, respectively, for seditious conspiracy and other charges related to the breach of the U.S. Capitol.

The challenge for judges, however, is that there are no similar cases to compare to these Capitol attack cases. What took place on Jan. 6 and also leading up to the attack, Paul says, is unprecedented.

In his opinion, to handle the sentencing, the judges relied on the evidence in the cases and the jury convictions. The actions of the accused were not as violent as they could have been, Paul says, but they were part of a plan to change the results of the 2020 election.

“What could be more of a threat to the stability of the country, to the livelihood of hundreds of millions of Americans, to international order than a small number of people taking it upon themselves to say, ‘We don’t like the result of an election. We’re going to try and change it.’?” Paul says. “Once you accept the frame that the individuals who have been sentenced are being sentenced for trying to control the outcome of an election, the sentences are not harsh at all.” 

The groups behind the Jan. 6 attack, he says, had planned to use the benefit of plausible deniability, a maneuver often used by politicians. 

“In a certain sense, I would describe the conduct of the people who’ve now been convicted and sentenced almost as if they constructed their plan so that if it didn’t go the way they wanted to, they would be able to say, ‘Oh, you know, it was just all a big joke,’” he says.

Right after the insurrection, a lot of eyeballs were drawn by the pictures of the crowds, the chaos or people wandering around the Capitol building, Paul says. That could have created an impression that a protest had just gotten out of hand. 

In reality, however, members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, the far-right nationalist militant organizations, were hoping that Trump would arrive at the Capitol, Paul says, that they would be able to pressure former Vice President Mike Pence not to certify the vote, stop the vote count, and send it back to the state legislatures.

Paul says he finds it problematic that some of the Republican candidates for the 2024 presidential election have been announcing in advance that they would pardon the participants of the insurrection if elected. He finds this to be “an astonishing collapse of bipartisan institutionalism.” Historically, pardons in the U.S. were given to people when there were extenuating circumstances, when there was a sense that the convicted had paid their debt in a certain way or because of change of times. 

“The country as a whole used to basically have a good bit of faith in formal processes,” he says. “But what former President Trump and other Republican candidates are now basically saying is that these prosecutions are illegitimate.”

Since the Biden administration has to prosecute people who have clearly broken the law and clearly threaten the stability of the country, Paul says, this creates a spiral that furthers the polarization of the country and leads to the kind of crimes that took place on Jan. 6, 2021.

“The idea of pulling one country together seems almost, you know, like a Disney fantasy,” he says. “That’s a tragedy. We can’t have that.” 

In more than two and a half years since Jan. 6, U.S. authorities have arrested more than 1,100 individuals in nearly all 50 states for crimes related to the breach of the U.S. Capitol. More than 350 individuals have been charged with assaulting or impeding law enforcement.

Alena Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at a.kuzub@northeastern.edu. Follow her on Twitter @AlenaKuzub.