Consider the cases of a few of the Central Florida and Tampa Bay residents charged in the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
What You Need To Know
- Prosecutors are working to resolve hundreds of cases related to Jan. 6 Capitol siege
- Charges, including in Central Florida in Tampa Bay, range from smaller to what some have called seditious
- An Orlando defense lawyer foresees an effort to "tier off defendants" based on harm caused
Audrey Southard-Rumsey of Spring Hill stands accused of assaulting a federal officer.
Andrew Williams, a Sanford firefighter, stands accused of entering and remaining and disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building.
Kelly and Connie Meggs of Dunnellon stand accused, with others linked to the far-right Oath Keepers group, of helping to plan and coordinate the attack on the Capitol.
They’re among at least 464 people whom prosecutors have charged in federal court for crimes related to the Jan. 6 siege.
They’re also among 43 charged in Florida, including 14 in Central Florida and 10 in Tampa Bay, according to a Spectrum News review of a U.S. Justice Department online compilation of Capitol breach cases.
And they represent a microcosm of sorts to federal prosecutors who are working to resolve hundreds of nationwide cases that range from perhaps small-time to serious to — as some have suggested — seditious.
Because of the range of charges, “you’re going to see not everybody be treated the same,” said David Haas, an Orlando-based state and federal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. “You've got people who are doing more harm, more violence, more destructive acts.”
Ex-FBI agent: 'Erosion of our respect for government'
On Jan. 6, supporters of Donald Trump, who had just given a speech, stormed the Capitol and interrupted the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory over Trump, the incumbent president who had asserted that the election had been stolen from him.
The attack ultimately led to seven deaths, including three law enforcement officers, according to a U.S. Senate report on the incident. The Justice Department cites “approximately 140” assaults on police officers.
The attack also sparked what reports call one of the largest criminal investigations in U.S. history, and the actions of some participants left at least one former FBI agent calling for accountability.
“I think there has been an erosion of our respect for government, for the rule of law,” said Stuart Kaplan, a Florida-based federal criminal-defense lawyer who worked as a special agent in an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. “I don't have a problem clearly with people assembling and voicing their opinion.
“But when you start to destroy property, start to hurt innocent people, and most importantly start to intimidate or threaten or harm those men and women who … are putting their lives on the line, and force them to have to defend themselves when they're there to protect you and me, I find that to be just reprehensible, and I do believe that people should be held accountable.”
Kaplan told Spectrum News last week he hopes federal courts deal with each case individually and “not lump or group everybody together, because I would find that to be not fair.”
Haas, the Orlando-based defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, told Spectrum News he foresees a “coordinated effort from the government to sort of hierarchy and tier off defendants based upon their varying levels of involvement in culpability and harm caused.”
Examples of Central Florida, Tampa Bay cases
Many cases in which authorities made arrests in Central Florida and Tampa Bay include charges such as disorderly conduct, entering or remaining in a restricted building or obstruction of an official proceeding.
Days after the Capitol breach, prosecutors charged Williams, the Sanford firefighter, with entering and remaining in a restricted building and disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building.
A photo of Williams shows him standing under an entranceway inside the Capitol and pointing at a sign that says, “Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi,” a political rival of Trump.
Williams remains on unpaid administrative leave until the conclusion of his criminal case, a City of Sanford spokeswoman told Spectrum News this week.
Five Central Florida and Tampa Bay cases involve assault, including one on a federal officer or employee.
Prosecutors accuse Spring Hill resident Audrey Southard-Rumsey of entering the Capitol on the afternoon of Jan. 6 and getting captured on video yelling, “Tell Pelosi we are coming for that b----,” and “There’s a hundred thousand of us, what’s it going to be?”
Prosecutors also accuse Southard-Rumsey of pressing a flagpole against the chest of a U.S. Capitol Police sergeant, according to court documents. Southard-Rumsey allegedly started to push the sergeant, causing him to fall backward into a set of doors and hit the back of his head on a marble statue, the court documents say.
She was arrested on June 2 and released on conditions, according to the documents.
Some defendants linked to Oath Keepers, Proud Boys
And four Central Florida cases include conspiracy.
Prosecutors link at least three Central Florida defendants — Kenneth Harrelson of Titusville and the Meggses of Dunnellon — to the far-right Oath Keepers group. They link at least one defendant — Randall Biggs of Ormond Beach — to the Proud Boys, another far-right group.
A Jan. 8 federal indictment charged Harrelson, Kelly and Connie Meggs and eight others together in one case, saying they “did knowingly combine, conspire, confederate, and agree with each other and others known and unknown, to commit an offense against the United States, namely, to corruptly obstruct, influence, and impede an official proceeding, that is, Congress's certification of the Electoral College vote.”
Court documents say that on Dec. 22, Kelly Meggs wrote a series of Facebook messages that read, in part: "Trump said It's gonna be wild!!!!!!! It's gonna be wild!!!!!!! He wants us to make it WILD that's what he's saying. He called us all to the Capitol and wants us to make it wild!!! Sir Yes Sir!!! Gentlemen we are heading to DC pack your s--t!!"
On Christmas Day, the documents say, Kelly Meggs wrote on Facebook that he was named “State lead of Florida today."
With five others, Kelly and Connie Meggs “prepared themselves for battle” with communication devices, reinforced vests, helmets and goggles,” according to the indictment. The husband and wife helped form a “stack of individuals” that kept a hand on the shoulder of a person in front of them and “maneuvered in an organized and practiced fashion up the steps on the east side of the Capitol,” the indictment says.
Court documents say Biggs, whom prosecutors call a self-described Proud Boys organizer, wrote in late December on a social media platform: “we will not be attending DC in colors. We will be blending in as one of you. You won’t see us. You’ll even think we are you . . .We are going to smell like you, move like you, and look like you. The only thing we’ll do that’s us is think like us! Jan 6th is gonna be epic.”
The varying degrees of conspiracy
The U.S. Justice Department says on an information page about arrests related to the Jan. 6 attack that about 30 defendants have been charged with conspiracy. Those charges involve conspiracy to obstruct a congressional proceeding, to obstruct law enforcement during a civil disorder, to injure an officer, or some combination of the three, the Justice Department says.
Haas, the Orlando-based defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said the seriousness of the conspiracy charges come down to “what you’re conspiring to do.”
“If you're actually hurting people, and then if you're conspiring to hurt people or to do some sort of overthrow, that may be viewed as worse, depending on the extent to which you were trying to do it,” he said.
Haas said he anticipates more “misdemeanor types of resolutions” for the “lower-end” allegations. “Then you’ll see more felony and more series charges for the more culpable people.”
Trials could start as soon as the fall, he said.
The Justice Department so far cites two plea agreements, including from Tampa resident Paul Hodgkins, who pleaded guilty to one count of obstructing an official proceeding.
The Justice Department says the felony charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. But NPR reported this month that U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss said the estimated sentencing guideline range for Hodgkins would be 15 to 21 months in prison, based on his history. He's scheduled for sentencing on July 19.
Also, an Indiana man and founding member of the Oath Keepers has pleaded guilty to obstruction of an official proceeding and to entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds with a deadly or dangerous weapon, the Justice Department says. He faces up to 30 years in prison for those charges.
“I'm sure that there are a number of defendants who are just simply waiting on plea agreements to come to them so they can resolve their case,” Haas told Spectrum News. “But in federal court, what you'll see for the most part is the plea and then months later there will be the actual sentencing. So these cases will stretch into next year, for sure.”
What many defense lawyers might argue
Kaplan, the federal criminal defense lawyer and former FBI special agent, said he expects many defense lawyers to argue that their clients merely lost control of their emotions and to ask the court “not to judge my client solely or strictly on this one day in his life.”
“And I think for most of them, there should be some leniency,” Kaplan said. “I think the ridicule, the humiliation, the fact that someone has been arrested and prosecuted, the fact that there will be the stigma that will be attached to them for the rest of their lives is a pretty heavy penalty to pay in the first place.”
As for those who used force, destroyed government property, or threatened and intimidated others, he said, “I think there may be some additional punishment that may be warranted.”
Both lawyers emphasized that sentencing is up the judges, who observe federal sentencing guidelines and, according to U.S. code, must consider the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant.
Haas also stressed that federal judges “know the legal significance of what Jan. 6 was as far as certification of the votes.”
“It wasn’t like this was planned for a different hour or a different day,” Haas said of the Jan. 6 attack. “It was that day for a reason, and the judges are keenly aware of that.”