A federal judge unleashed on prosecutors Thursday for allowing some defendants charged in the Capitol insurrection to resolve their cases by pleading to "petty offenses."
Judge Beryl A. Howell's hour-long diatribe came during a plea hearing for Jack Jesse Griffith, who pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge of parading inside the Capitol, the Washington Post reports.
"No wonder parts of the public in the U.S. are confused about whether what happened on January 6 at the Capitol was simply a petty offense of trespassing with some disorderliness, or shocking criminal conduct that represented a grave threat to our democratic norms," said Howell, who was nominated by former president Barack Obama in 2010.
"Let me make my view clear: The rioters were not mere protesters," Howell said, before asking why, when prosecutors called the insurrection an "attack on democracy . . . unparalleled in American history," some defendants are being treated the same as nonviolent protesters who routinely disrupt congressional hearings.
"It seems like a bit of a disconnect," Howell said, calling prosecutors' approach "muddled" and "almost schizophrenic."
"Is it the government's view that the members of the mob that engaged in the Capitol attack on January 6 were simply trespassers?" Howell said. "Is general deterrence going to be served by letting rioters who broke into the Capitol, overran the police . . . broke into the building through windows and doors . . . resolve their criminal liability through petty offense pleas?"
Howell also questioned why prosecutors are requiring Griffith and other defendants to pay only $500 in restitution, while taxpayers are paying $500 million for Capitol security upgrades.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Pearce responded that the $500 figure came from dividing the cost of repairs to the Captiol — $1.5 million — by the number of rioters who entered the building.
When Pearce said the goal is "to make the victims whole," Howell responded that the $1.5 million figure "doesn't even come close."
Howell ultimately sentenced Griffin to 36 months of probation, even though prosecutors requested jail time, because she said incarcerating him would be unfair given the fate of similarly situated defendants whose cases have already been resolved.
"My hands are tied," Howell said. "In all my years on the bench, I've never been in this position before, and it's all due to the government, despite calling this the crime of the century, resolving it with a . . . petty offense."