“Then this plea doesn’t go forward,” Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly told Camper’s lawyer, who objected to a line in the plea deal that said Camper “unlawfully” entered the US Capitol. “If he’s in there and doesn’t think he did anything wrong, then there is no plea.”
It’s one example of the spectrum of contrition from the Capitol rioters. Some have offered emotional apologies and renounced the “big lie” about the 2020 election. Others remain defiant and see themselves as “political prisoners.” Some rioters, even while pleading guilty, pushed back when pressed by judges to take responsibility, leading to hiccups and delays at several recent hearings.
The pushback from rioters comes at a key moment in the national reckoning over January 6 as Congress ramps up its inquiries and as former President Donald Trump and his allies continue to whitewash the deadly attack, often promoting the same self-serving narratives as the rioters.
A lack of remorse could also have legal consequences. Defendants who plead guilty aren’t required to apologize, though it can persuade a judge to show leniency at sentencing. Federal prosecutors have said they’re looking for contrition from the insurrectionists, and they’ve already cited defiant comments from some rioters to argue in court that they deserve time behind bars.
‘The door was literally held up’
Camper, a 54-year-old real estate investor from Montana, came to Washington, DC, to hear Trump speak at the now-infamous rally on January 6. He heeded Trump’s words and marched to the Capitol. Like hundreds of others, he breached the building and got into the Rotunda.
He was arrested in March and charged with four misdemeanors. Federal prosecutors offered him the typical deal for nonviolent rioters, and a plea hearing was scheduled for late July. As part of the agreement, Camper was required to admit to key elements of the specific crime he was charged with: Illegally parading, demonstrating, or picketing inside the Capitol building.
At a rescheduled plea hearing earlier this month, Camper acknowledged under oath that he entered a “restricted area” and “made a bad choice.” But when asked if he knew he wasn’t allowed in the Capitol itself, he tried to make the case that police officers “weren’t even trying to stop us” from entering the Capitol.
“The door was literally held up by someone who appeared to be a person of authority,” he said.
Nonetheless, the judge accepted his guilty plea, and his sentencing is set for November. Camper’s attorney declined to comment when asked by CNN for evidence backing up his claims about the police.
Judges looking for contrition
Another pro-Trump rioter, John Lolos, nearly derailed his August 4 plea hearing when he made a similar comment about police supposedly waiving him into the crypt in the Capitol basement.
“I just wanted to get that off my chest (and) on the record,” Lolos told the judge.
Prosecutors asked if he was trying to renege on the plea agreement. His lawyer said he wanted to move forward with the deal, as written, and might raise the issue at sentencing. Lolos faces a maximum of six months in jail.
Still, it might be risky to shift some blame onto the police. Before sentencing, judges closely review recommendations from the prosecutors and the defense. And the Justice Department has said “evidence of remorse or contrition” is one key to getting a favorable recommendation.
“It boils down to defendants saying that they learned a lesson from all this,” said Michael Zeldin, a former federal prosecutor and criminal defense attorney in Washington, DC. “If I were still a defense lawyer, I’d have my clients affirmatively doing things to demonstrate that these aren’t just words … to show they’re sincere in these new beliefs and they’re already acting on them.”
That’s exactly what Indiana grandmother Anna Morgan-Lloyd tried to do. She told Judge Thomas Hogan she went through a political transformation after watching movies and reading books about racial inequality. She apologized for her “shameful” participation in a “savage display of violence.”
The judge gave her probation. But one day after sentencing, she went on Fox News and offered a very different perspective: She said she only entered the Capitol to protect an elderly woman, called the rioters “very polite,” and said police were “relaxed” and “didn’t tell anybody to leave.”
The about-face caught the eye of federal Judge Thomas Hogan, who cited Morgan-Lloyd while recently presiding over the plea hearing for a married couple that stormed the Capitol. Hogan said he was “concerned whether (we’re) getting true acceptance of responsibility” from rioters.
Whitewashing the violence
Some Republicans have downplayed the attack by comparing it to a tourist visit, falsely claiming that jailed defendants are “political prisoners,” and lionizing the rioter who was killed by police.
And the “police-let-us-in” theory has popped up in many Capitol riot cases — and simultaneously emerged as a GOP talking point in Trump’s recent interviews and in congressional hearings.
“In all fairness, the Capitol Police were ushering people in,” Trump told two Washington Post reporters who published a bombshell book about his tumultuous final year in the White House.
He repeated this claim in a lie-filled Fox News interview where he said there was a “lovefest” between police and rioters, and “they ought to release the tape to see what really happened.”
At an oversight hearing in June, Rep. Glenn Grothman, a Wisconsin Republican, said some of the rioters “appeared to almost be escorted in by the Capitol Police.” He also claimed many of the pro-Trump rioters “would have had no idea (or) way of knowing they’re breaking the law.”
Prosecutors have rebutted these theories in court, and judges have opined that the illegality of the breach should’ve been obvious, because of the alarms, tear gas, and battles with police.
“When you were standing on the steps with a mob, you thought that was okay?” Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the DC District Court asked Glenn Croy at his plea hearing. “… What you’re saying here today, under oath, is that you did not know that you weren’t supposed to be there?”
Croy responded by saying he “did not see any barriers” on his walk from the Trump rally to the Capitol, and that he “didn’t realize at the time” that he wasn’t allowed onto the Capitol steps.
“I knew (the police) were trying to get people off those steps, but I had no idea,” Croy said. “… I didn’t know it was an unlawful assembly until later… even with the smoke grenades and stuff.”
The judge accepted his guilty plea and he will be sentenced in October.
‘A self-serving rewrite of history’
Prosecutors recently squared off with another rioter, Robert Reeder, who pleaded guilty but argued that he should receive probation because he only went inside the Capitol to find water after getting pepper sprayed. He also faulted police for ineffectively guarding the building.
“The officers were standing near the walls and neither verbally nor otherwise attempted to keep Mr. Reeder from walking into the building,” his lawyer wrote. Explaining why Reeder stayed inside the building, his lawyer continued, “Mr. Reeder, who had never been in the Capitol before, was struck by the awe and the beauty of the Rotunda and began taking pictures and videos.”
In response, federal prosecutors wrote that Reeder’s argument “is the equivalent of blaming homeowners for not having a better security system or doing more to stop a mob of burglars.”
They also slammed Reeder for claiming in an April FBI interview that the riot was “a plan to allow people in” so the media could “demonize the Trump people” — a conspiracy theory that 55% of Republicans believe is true, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll that was conducted in April.
Reeder offered “a self-serving rewrite of history that sought to portray himself as a hapless tourist, absolve himself of any wrongdoing (and) place blame on others,” prosecutors wrote, urging the judge to give him two months in jail. His sentencing is scheduled for Wednesday.