Here’s why one judge who oversees Jan. 6 cases is afraid for American democracy
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A federal judge in Washington, D.C., issued a warning about the risk of future political violence and the dangers of ongoing misinformation and denialism regarding the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.
At a sentencing hearing for 21-year-old Aiden Bilyard, a North Carolina man who admitted deploying bear spray against police during the Jan. 6 insurrection — and smashing open a Capitol window with a metal bat — Judge Reggie Walton said that the U.S. is in a “scary moment” in which democracy remains endangered.
“It’s scary going forward as a country where we end up,” said Walton, who has handled a series of Jan. 6 cases. “Because what happened on Jan. 6 is not something that’s just in the past. It, unfortunately, is something that still haunts us because the individuals who instigated what occurred are still engaging in the same rhetoric that resulted in the frenzy that took place on that day. This is a very serious situation because it goes to the root of what we are supposed to be as a democracy.”
Bilyard’s defense attorneys unsuccessfully sought a sentence of home confinement during Friday’s hearing, arguing he was remorseful for his actions. Defense lawyers also said Bilyard has been exposed to unwelcomed propaganda and influence by other Jan. 6 defendants — including Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes — while in pretrial detention in Virginia. But Walton said the offenses committed by Bilyard, who sprayed officers with a gel form of bear spray that was considered particularly dangerous, were too serious for the leniency of home detention. Walton sentenced Bilyard to 40 months in prison, after also warning of the danger of the spread of misinformation about the Capitol riot.
Walton, a 2001 appointee to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, said he’s unsure how people “live with themselves” when they call Jan. 6 defendants “political prisoners,” or sow misinformation about what happened inside the Capitol that day.
Though Walton didn’t name anyone specific, Jan. 6 defendants and their sympathizers have held nightly protests outside the Washington, D.C., jail, in which defendants are frequently referred to as political prisoners. At a protest on Thursday, a Jan. 6 defendant called the Capitol attack an entrapment operation by the FBI and Antifa.
Multiple members of Congress, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, have referred to Jan. 6 defendants at “political prisoners.” Fox News host Tucker Carlson has also been accused of making baseless and “cherry picked” claims about the attack.
“A democracy can’t survive if you have a significant number of people who are prepared to subvert the electoral process because the result is not the result that they wanted,” Walton said during Bilyard’s hearing. “I mean that. That’s a sad state of affairs that we’re in at this point where someone loses — and loses by 7 million votes — but nonetheless, espouses that they did win. And there are enough people who believe that was the case, despite any evidence that would suggest that the allegations have any merit. There have been 60-something court cases that have rejected the proposition that the election was somehow stolen.”
Walton criticized people who are following “the calls of a demagogue.”
There was an outburst in the courtroom as Walton announced his sentence of Bilyard. His mother said “this isn’t right,” in protest of his decision.
“He made his bed,” Walton responded about Bilyard. “Now he has to lie in it.”
“Bilyard pointed the nozzle of the canister at officers who were attempting to prevent the mob from proceeding further towards the Capitol Building,” according to a news release from the Justice Department Friday following the sentencing. “He then discharged the chemical irritant towards the group of officers. Immediately after he sprayed the irritant, Bilyard and other rioters overwhelmed the police line, causing the officers to retreat through a stairwell to the Lower West Terrace.”
At the hearing, prosecutors said BIlyard’s actions helped rioters gain entry into the Senate conference room. They said some of the people in the mob stole furniture from the room and shared it with rioters who were attacking police, including a conference room door that was used as a shield by attackers.