The first person to have pleaded guilty to storming the Capitol on Jan. 6 with the intention of stopping the certification of the Electoral College vote was sentenced Monday to eight months in prison in what could serve as an indicator for scores of similar cases.
The defendant, Paul A. Hodgkins, pleaded guilty last month to a single felony count — obstruction of an official proceeding before Congress — and admitted to breaching the Senate floor with a Trump flag and a backpack filled with items like goggles, rope and a pair of latex gloves.
Hodgkins was one of about 50 people who made it to the Senate floor, prosecutors say. His acknowledgment that he went deep into the Capitol intending to disrupt the peaceful transition of power set him apart in the eyes of prosecutors from scores of other members of the mob who had merely walked into the building.
At a sentencing hearing in Federal District Court in Washington, Judge Randolph D. Moss said there needed to be “severe consequences” for the attack, but also noted that Hodgkins, a 38-year-old Florida crane operator, was a first-time offender and had pleaded guilty early. Those circumstances will apply to only some of the other defendants who are facing similar charges.
Moss said the events of Jan. 6 — when, as he noted, a mob assaulted the home of Congress and forced legislators to drop the business of democracy and flee the building — were “extraordinary” and chilling.”
“When a mob is prepared to attack the Capitol,” he said, “democracy is in trouble.”
Hodgkins told Moss that he was “remorseful” for breaking into the Capitol, calling it a “foolish decision.” He also said that he had followed the crowd inside the building, adding that if he had known the riot was going to escalate as it did, he never would have entered in the first place.
“In short,” Hodgkins said, “I allowed myself to put my passions before my principles.”
From the outset of the sprawling investigation into the Capitol attack, prosecutors have struggled with how to apply fair standards of justice to hundreds of people who did different things and bore different levels of culpability. Even though they were all part of the same mob, some rioters did little more than walk into — then out of — the Capitol while others shattered windows, broke into private offices or assaulted police officers.
Hodgkins’ sentence was less than half of the 18 months the government had asked for but more than the request made by his lawyer, Patrick Leduc, for no time in prison. The obstruction count he was charged with is a felony and allowed prosecutors to ask for prison time but not use the more politically inflammatory crimes of sedition or insurrection.
During the hearing, a prosecutor, Mona Sedky, said the government wanted to “frame” the charges against Hodgkins as an act of domestic terrorism to deter future attacks. But Sedky also said prosecutors were not seeking a formal sentencing enhancement for a crime of terror.
The authorities have arrested nearly 550 people in the Capitol attack, and as of late last week about 20 had entered guilty pleas. Only three defendants, including Hodgkins, have been sentenced, although more will follow this summer and into the fall.
The first person to be sentenced, Anna Morgan-Lloyd, of Indiana, was charged with a misdemeanor, and late last month she was allowed to conclude her case without serving prison time. Another defendant charged with minor crimes, Michael Curzio, of Florida, was sentenced last week to time served after spending six months in jail — the maximum sentence he could have received under the law.
In the days before Hodgkins was sentenced, his lawyer, Leduc, presented the case in court papers as a kind of cautionary tale, comparing the aftermath of the riot to the period after the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln was “facing the complex decision of how to heal a nation that was hopelessly divided.”
At the hearing, Leduc quoted Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, saying that Moss had a chance to show “malice toward none” and “charity toward all.” Moss responded by asking Leduc if a sentence of no prison time would in fact “heal the country” or simply create conditions that might encourage another attack like the one on Jan. 6.
Leduc also noted that Hodgkins had made “a fateful decision to follow the crowd” and was only in the Capitol briefly.
“It is the story of man who for just one hour on one day, lost his bearings and his way,” he wrote before the hearing.
But Moss rejected that depiction, saying that Hodgkins had brought goggles and a pair of gloves with him to the Capitol as if “prepared for conflict.” Moss also noted that Hodgkins was carrying a Trump flag.
“He was staking a claim on the floor on the United States Senate,” Moss said, “not with an American flag but a flag of a single individual over a nation.”This article originally appeared in The New York Times.