At least two Republican presidential candidates are criticizing as excessive recent prison sentences for members of the far-right Proud Boys involved in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, casting the defendants as victims of an unfair justice system rather than leading participants in an effort to disrupt the peaceful transition of power.
Several sentences have been handed down in the past two weeks: 22 years for Enrique Tarrio, 15 and 17 years for Zachary Rehl and Joseph Biggs, and 10 and 18 years for Dominic Pezzola and Ethan Nordean. The Proud Boys were behind major breaches of the Capitol on Jan. 6, and the men who received the sentences played leading roles in planning the attack, executing it or both.
“They just walked into the Capitol. If they were B.L.M., they would not have been prosecuted,” Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said of some defendants in an interview with Newsmax on Wednesday, adding that he would consider pardoning them.
Of others, he said, “They may have been violent, but to say it’s an act of terrorism when it was basically a protest that devolved into a riot, to do excessive sentences — you can look at, OK, maybe they were guilty, but 22 years if other people that did other things got six months?”
Another candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, declared on X, formerly Twitter, on Tuesday in response to the sentences, “This is wrong & it’s sad that I’m the only candidate with the spine to say it.” In a statement on Wednesday, he vowed to pardon all “peaceful, nonviolent” Jan. 6 participants and said, “America now has a two-tiered justice system: Antifa and B.L.M. rioters roam free while peaceful Jan. 6 protesters are imprisoned without bail.”
The vast majority of Jan. 6 defendants have been released on bail while awaiting trial, however, and their pretrial detention rate is significantly lower than the rate for the total population of federal defendants.
The suggestions by Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Ramaswamy that Jan. 6 rioters and conspirators were being punished more harshly than people who participated in Black Lives Matter protests align with Republicans’ broader grievances that the federal justice system has been “weaponized” against conservatives.
But most of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, when the movement reached a peak, were peaceful. An Associated Press investigation in 2021 found that, in the cases where they did turn violent, more than 120 defendants had either pleaded guilty or been convicted on federal charges such as rioting, arson and conspiracy.
Those who had been sentenced at the time of the A.P. investigation had received prison terms of a little over two years on average. But of the more than 1,100 cases related to Jan. 6, according to an NPR database, the median sentence for those who received prison time has been 120 days.
In the cases of Mr. Tarrio and other Proud Boys leaders, the more serious charges of seditious conspiracy — and the harsher sentences — stemmed from their attempts to overturn a democratic election or prevent the government from carrying out essential business. Federal law defines seditious conspiracy as two or more people plotting to overthrow the federal government by force, to wage war against it, to seize federal property or to, by force, “prevent, hinder or delay the execution of any law of the United States.”
In one case Republicans have frequently pointed to in an attempt to compare Black Lives Matter protesters to Jan. 6 rioters, protesters clashed with police officers outside a federal courthouse in Portland, Ore., in July 2020, and at one point breached a fence; many of the protesters had charges dismissed or received short sentences. The court was not in session when the fence was breached, and nobody was in the building.
“The Portland rioters’ conduct, while obviously serious, did not target a proceeding prescribed by the Constitution and established to ensure a peaceful transition of power,” Carl J. Nichols, a district court judge in Washington who was appointed by Mr. Trump, wrote in denying a motion from a Jan. 6 defendant who had claimed to be a victim of “selective prosecution.” “Nor did the Portland rioters, unlike those who assailed America’s Capitol in 2021, make it past the buildings’ outer defenses.”
The defendant, Judge Nichols wrote, “has failed to point to any Portland case that is similar to this one and in which the government made a substantially different prosecutorial decision.”
Alan Feuer contributed reporting.