NEW YORK – A supporter of former president Donald Trump was sentenced to 19 months in prison for threatening to “slaughter” members of Congress days after the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol – a threat that tested the limits of free speech in an era of contentious political division.
Brendan Hunt, 37, still doesn’t recognize the severity of the violent rhetoric in the 88-second message he posted online 12 days before Joe Biden’s inauguration, said the judge who sentenced him Monday in federal court in Brooklyn.
“We cherish free speech in this country but we also cherish our form of government,” said U.S. District Court Judge Pamela Chen, who rejected Hunt’s bid to limit his sentence to the 10 months he has already been held.
Hunt did not go to Washington on Jan. 6, when a mob of Trump supporters attacked police and forced their way into the Capitol to try to disrupt the certification of Biden’s presidential victory. But he posted a video to the online site BitChute on Jan. 8 citing Trump’s false claims that the election was tainted and saying Trump’s followers should “take up arms” and head to Washington to kill lawmakers he thought were traitors for confirming the Biden win.
“[W]e need to go back to the U.S. Capitol when all of the Senators and a lot of the Representatives are back there and this time we have to show up with our guns and we need to slaughter” them, he said in the video.
Hunt was arrested the day before Biden’s inauguration, and a jury convicted him of making death threats against members of Congress in late April.
During the four-hour sentencing hearing on Monday, Chen said Hunt seems more concerned about his own situation than the potential danger he created for others. She said he has a tendency to “portray himself as a victim,” with a “very defiant personality” that has revealed itself to jail staff at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.
“Though I think he’s expressing remorse now, it feels very much to me that he feels much worse for himself and his family than he does for anybody else,” the judge said, adding that she was imposing additional jail time both because Hunt’s crime was “serious and for the purposes of general deterrence.”
“Mr. Hunt, you are going to have to grow up and reflect on your actions,” she said.
Hunt, of Queens, is the son of a retired family court judge and was working as a New York state courts employee at the time of his arrest.
Evidence presented at trial portrayed him as an embittered homebody who was obsessed with Nazi Germany and white supremacist concepts and grew increasingly fixated on a right-wing agenda and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election results.
He began posting online threats to elected officials including Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., then the minority leader; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., around the time of the election.
During his trial, the jury deliberated for less than half a day before convicting Hunt on a single count of threatening members of Congress and finding him not guilty of charges related to posts he made before Jan. 6.
When given the chance to speak on Thursday, Hunt apologized for his actions. But he also insulted the Justice Department and complained about its references to his interest in Adolf Hitler.
“The government’s claim that I was motivated to make this video because I’m some kind of neo-Nazi white supremacist is just an ugly, untrue and unfair lie,” he said, reading from a prepared statement at the defense table. “Associating someone with Nazis is a standard of evil which lazy rhetoric resorts to when it’s groping for negatives.”
Prosecutors sought as much as five years in prison for Hunt, citing examples of hostile behavior presented at trial, including when he threatened to stab his cousin’s infant because the relative stopped following him on Facebook.
“He continues to lack self-awareness and his judgment remains impaired because he does not believe what he did was wrong,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ian Richardson said.
One of Hunt’s attorneys, Jan Rostel, compared Hunt’s prosecution to the nation’s war on drugs, which is being re-examined for whether the mass incarceration it resulted in was a benefit to society.
She called Hunt’s case part of a “war on discourse,” suggesting the Justice Department’s pursuit of her client impinged on the right to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment.
Hunt had faced a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.