Some people who apologised in court for taking part in attack on US democracy now describe themselves as victims of persecution.
After pleading guilty to a felony charge in the deadly riot at the United States Capitol, former West Virginia lawmaker Derrick Evans appeared before a federal judge to express remorse for letting down his family and community, saying he made a “crucial mistake”.
Less than a year later, Evans is portraying himself as a victim of a politically motivated prosecution as he runs to serve in the same building he stormed on January 6, 2021. Evans is now calling the US Justice Department’s prosecutions over the attack a “miscarriage of justice” and describes himself on Twitter as a “J6 Patriot”.
“Some ppl have said I need to apologize and condemn #J6 if I want to win my election as the media will attack me,” he tweeted recently, after announcing his bid for a seat in the US House of Representatives in 2024. “I will not compromise my values or beliefs. That’s what politicians do. We need Patriots not politicians.”
Evans joins a series of January 6 defendants who, when facing possible prison time, expressed regret in court for joining the mob that rattled the foundations of US democracy, only to strike a different tone or downplay the riot after receiving their punishment.
Thousands of people supporting then-President Donald Trump surrounded the Capitol during the January 6 riot, breaking into the building in an effort to overturn the Republican’s 2020 election loss. As of last month, the Justice Department estimates that more than 950 participants have been arrested.
But the very first January 6 defendant to be sentenced apologized in court and then went on the Fox News Channel and seemed to minimize the riot. Another defendant who called January 6 “horrifying and disgusting” later donned an orange jumpsuit to play the part of a distraught prisoner in a bizarre tribute to imprisoned Capitol rioters during a conservative conference.
Some defendants have drawn ire from judges and the Justice Department for their inconsistent comments. But there’s not much the legal system can do for an adjudicated defendant. And because some conservatives hold up January 6 defendants as martyrs, there’s a political incentive for them to change their tune.
It could push judges to impose stronger punishments for rioters who haven’t yet made it to the end of their criminal cases. Even before Evans’s sentencing, the judge who heard his case began questioning the sincerity of rioters’ apologies after he felt duped by another defendant, saying he was “all too familiar with crocodile tears”.
In some cases, judges have questioned whether they should undo convictions or plea deals after defendants made statements in public that appeared to go against what they said in court.
On Friday, US District Judge Amit Mehta ordered an Illinois man convicted this week to explain why the judge shouldn’t vacate his conviction after he agreed in court that he participated in the riot and then told a newspaper he didn’t actually think he committed the crimes with which he was charged.
Before being sentenced in June to three months behind bars for a civil disorder charge, Evans said he regretted his actions every day and told Senior Judge Royce Lamberth he is a “good person who unfortunately was caught up in a moment”.
Shortly after, however, prosecutors wrote to the judge about several statements Evans made on a radio show that were “inconsistent with the contrition” he showed at sentencing.
When asked whether he felt remorseful about his actions, Evans said on the show that he regretted the “situation” he was in. But he said he was “never going to have regrets when it comes to standing up and doing what’s right”.
Evans said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press that he still stands behind what he said in court. “That was my message to the judge,” he wrote. “This is my message to the media. It’s time to tell the real story of what happened personally to me that day.”
Evans said he lost “almost everything”, including his job as a state lawmaker and time with his kids, because of his decision to take part in the January 6 attack. “How could I not regret that?” he asked.
But he said he is “done being portrayed as a villain” when he is not, noting that he didn’t overrun any officers and was inside the Capitol for only 10 minutes.
When determining an appropriate sentence, judges generally take into account whether defendants have taken responsibility for their actions and appear genuinely sorry. In some January 6 cases, judges have faulted defendants for not appearing to show true remorse even before their punishment has been handed down.
A lawyer for Trennis Evans III, who took a swig of whiskey in a congressional conference room during the riot, told the judge in court papers that his client was “sincerely remorseful, and duly contrite”.
But after Trennis Evans suggested at his November sentencing that January 6 defendants were being treated unfairly, even though he said he condemned what happened that day, the judge said she didn’t believe he showed “full and genuine remorse”.
Months after he was ordered to serve 20 days in jail, the Texas man travelled to South Dakota to urge state lawmakers to support a resolution encouraging “the humane and fair treatment” of January 6 defendants. The resolution failed by a unanimous vote.
The first January 6 defendant to get her punishment, Anna Morgan-Lloyd, told Lamberth that she was ashamed of the “savage display of violence” at the Capitol before the judge sentenced her to probation. Shortly after, however, the Indiana woman told Fox News host Laura Ingraham that people were “very polite” during the riot and that she saw “relaxed” police officers chatting with rioters.
Lamberth apparently has not forgotten about her comments. The judge wrote in court papers that he hoped another defendant’s “change of heart” was sincere because his hopes were “dashed” in Morgan-Lloyd’s case.
Morgan-Lloyd’s lawyer has said she believes her client was genuinely remorseful and was “played” by Ingraham. She also said Morgan-Lloyd sent the judge a letter after her TV interview. When contacted by The Associated Press, Morgan-Lloyd’s lawyer said her client would not comment.
After he dodged prison time in his January 6 case, right-wing activist Brandon Straka donned an orange jumpsuit, sat in a fake jail cell and performatively wept for a procession of attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas last August. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, entered the cage and embraced Straka before they appeared to pray together.
Months earlier, with a possible jail term hanging over his head, Straka referred to January 6 as “nothing more than an incredibly shameful day that had absolutely no positive attributes whatsoever”.
“I’m sorry that I was present in any way at an event that led people to feel afraid, that caused shame and embarrassment on our country and that served absolutely no purpose other than to further tear away at the already heartbreaking divide in this country,” he wrote in a letter to US District Judge Dabney Friedrich, who sentenced him to 36 months of probation.
An email seeking comment was sent to Straka, who is from Nebraska. He has said that his performance in Dallas was meant “to provoke a reaction about political division, human rights abuses and more” and accused critics of trying to “criminalize art”.
Since his sentencing, the judge questioned whether Straka wanted to withdraw his guilty plea. She said Straka could be opening himself up to prosecution for making false statements because of public comments that seemed to contradict things he said in court.
A written statement of offence — that Straka agreed was correct under his plea deal — says that he yelled, “Take it! Take it!” while filming others trying to take a police officer’s shield. Straka later told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that he told his lawyer he never made that comment. He suggested he admitted doing so because he was under pressure to take a deal.