Multiple law enforcement officers and two US Capitol staff members stood before a federal judge in Washington, DC, on Wednesday and recounted their terror as a mob breached the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, as several Oath Keepers members are set to be sentenced for seditious conspiracy.
Metropolitan Police Officer Christopher Owens, US Capitol Police Special Agent David Lazarus, USCP Officer Harry Dunn, former Senate Chamber Assistant Virginia Brown and Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s chief of staff Terri McCullough, testified how the riot changed them and spoke of their lasting physical and mental scars.
“They chose to be a part of a group that surrounded us, taunted us,” said Owens, who had been in a hallway outside the Senate chamber, recounting being beaten, spat on, and how a rioter attempted to pull his service weapon out of its holster.
Through tears, Owens recalled coming home to his wife and teenage daughter after the hourslong battle at the Capitol, and how his wife burst out crying when she saw his “bruised, bloody and battered” body.
“My physical scars, bruises and wounds have healed, but my mental trauma haunts me to this day,” Owens said.
The statements are a part of a weekslong process in which several members of the far-right Oath Keepers will face sentencing for their convictions related to the US Capitol riot. Prosecutors have asked for harsh prison sentences for each of the nine defendants ranging from 10 to 25 years.
The first sentencing hearing, for militia leader Stewart Rhodes, convicted of seditious conspiracy, is scheduled for Thursday.
Rhodes and Florida Oath Keepers leader Kelly Meggs were convicted of several charges including seditious conspiracy in November for what prosecutors called a plot to keep then-President Donald Trump in power after the 2020 election.
Jessica Watkins, Thomas Caldwell and Kenneth Harrelson were acquitted of the sedition charge during that trial but convicted of other charges, including obstructing an official proceeding.
In January, four additional Oath Keepers members and affiliates – Roberto Minuta, Joseph Hackett, David Moerschel and Edward Vallejo – were convicted of seditious conspiracy and other charges.
Dunn has been outspoken about his experience on January 6, saying that he now keeps his “head on a swivel” in public and feels anxious “whenever I see someone in cargo pants or anything remotely related to tactical gear.”
The USCP emotional support dog, Lila, was in the courtroom and followed Dunn out after his testimony.
David Lazarus, who rescued staff members barricaded inside the Capitol during the riot, recounted “the hurt” on the faces of congressional staffers as he escorted them to safety, saying their expressions were “burned into my brain forever.”
“The violence that the rioters brought to the Capitol never ended for many of us, Lazarus said, adding that the trauma had “reached into our homes, our personal lives, and our loved ones.”
After Lazarus finished his statement, District Judge Amit Mehta thanked him for his “heroism on January 6.”
Wednesday’s hearing took place in the ceremonial courtroom of Washington, DC’s federal court instead of Mehta’s normal courtroom so that all 11 defense lawyers, five prosecutors and several of the defendants could fit.
The four defendants in the courtroom – Rhodes, Meggs, Watkins and Harrelson – sat behind their lawyers in orange jumpsuits. The four took notes and watched each victim statement intently, though at times they shook their heads or sighed loudly when their conduct was discussed.
Mehta also rejected a plea from militia members to set aside the jury’s verdict.
In a detailed ruling that lasted for more than an hour, Mehta said that the Oath Keepers were clearly a “highly coordinated group” who spoke of “war, death” and violence against the government.
Defendants who were not present in the courtroom – Minuta, Caldwell, Hackett, Moerschel and Vallejo – appeared at the hearing through a videocall projected on a large screen at the front of the courtroom.
Congressional staffers testify
Mehta also heard from two women who worked in the Capitol on January 6 and who ran from the mob after the building was breached.
Virginia Brown, a 21-year-old college senior, said she had been honored when she was offered the chance to carry the certified Electoral College vote certificates from the House chamber to the Senate chamber on January 6, 2021.
A photograph of Brown, who was a college sophomore on January 6 and was working as a chamber assistant, and a second women standing on either end of a large box and walking through the Senate rotunda went viral online after the riot unfolded.
“I had no idea that by early afternoon I would be sprinting down the underground hallway,” Brown said. As she ran, Brown said she “kicked my shoes off, thinking I could run faster in my tights” and was “praying to God I wouldn’t encounter any insurrectionists.”
McCullough, then-Pelosi’s chief of staff, told Mehta she was devastated to learn that “rioters came intentionally to our offices to hunt for the speaker.”
“Many of our staff – my colleagues, my friends – hid in a conference room … all because they chose public service,” she said.
When she returned to the office that evening, McCullough said she found “Confederate flags and zip ties” sprawled around the office.
As the daylong hearing wrapped up, Mehta opened to door to the possibility that he would apply enhanced terrorism penalties for some or all of the Oath Keepers defendants.
“My initial thoughts are (the enhanced terrorism penalty) does apply,” Mehta said Wednesday. “It’s hard to say it doesn’t apply when someone is convicted of seditious conspiracy.”
Prosecutors cited the enhanced terrorism penalties when asking for lengthy prison terms for each defendant, writing that “here, the need to deter others is especially strong because these defendants engaged in acts that were intended to influence the government through intimidation or coercion—in other words, terrorism.”
The Justice Department has previously sought the same enhancement in other January 6-related cases, though judges have so far refused to apply it. Mehta, however, said that this is “different” than those other cases.
Mehta will rule later on whether the enhanced penalties apply to each of the individual nine defendants, and how they change a potential sentence, at each defendant’s sentencing hearing over the next two weeks.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly reflect the name of the former Senate chamber assistant who testified Wednesday.