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Lawyers for January 6 defendants try reeducation, Trump-blaming to find favor with judges

Trump's second impeachment lawyer said he's not surprised that some lawyers would pull "a Chairman Mao special" on clients.

Published: July 8, 2021 6:16pm

Updated: July 9, 2021 10:35pm

Many defendants in the January 6 Capitol riot have been pleading their remorse before judges, speaking about their complicity in evil for behavior as minor as trespassing.

"I'm ashamed that it became a savage display of violence that day," rural Indiana's Anna Morgan-Lloyd said at her sentencing last month, the first in the nation for January 6 defendants. 

Charged with violent entry and remaining in a building "without lawful authority," the 49-year-old took a plea for "parading," the charge often given to left-wing protesters who interrupt committee hearings. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth let her off with probation while warning he could have put her in jail for six months.

Morgan-Lloyd only entered the Capitol to keep tabs on an elderly woman she had met, and because "people who worked in the Capital [sic] Building walked past us," Morgan-Lloyd didn't think anything was amiss, she said in a statement to the court.

Yet if nonviolent protesters like her had left the scene, "the ones who were violent may have lost the nerve to do what they did," Morgan-Lloyd said, confessing she had unwittingly "empower[ed] people to act violently."

And then she made a curious disclosure: Her lawyer had been educating her on American history. Morgan-Lloyd read "Just Mercy" and "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" and watched "Slavery by Another Name" and "Burning Tulsa," among other works designed to "help me see what life is like for others."

D.C. lawyer H. Heather Shaner is giving a particular flavor of social studies homework to all her indigent clients assigned by the court, she told The Huffington Post last month. Claiming these clients are poorly educated and know little about America, she said that for them "reading books and then watching these shows is like a revelation."

Shaner told the court she had "many political and ethical discussions" with Morgan-Lloyd, who is learning "the American history she was not taught in school." 

It is "inappropriate but not entirely unexpected" that some defense lawyers would be putting their January 6 clients through a "Re-education/Re-programming campaign (a Chairman Mao special)," David Schoen, who represented former President Trump in his second impeachment trial, wrote in an email to Just the News.

While acknowledging that it could be justified if it helps the client, Schoen said, "To the extent the lawyer's ideology or political agenda is an obstacle and prevents him or her from putting forward a principled position the client wishes to take concerning the client's conduct — that is a real problem."

Shaner told Just the News it was too early to tell whether her educational efforts were having a positive impact with judges: Most of her clients are out on bond, and only one remains incarcerated, in Utah. She doesn't have any clients in D.C. jail, where the exceptionally harsh treatment of January 6 defendants sparked brief outrage on Capitol Hill this spring.

A July 6 tally by BuzzFeed News found Morgan-Lloyd remains the only sentenced defendant thus far, with 13 taking plea deals, around 70 in jail or pretrial custody, and more than half the 535 arrestees facing at least one felony charge, most commonly "obstruction of an official proceeding."

But Judge Lamberth is "one of the most conservative judges on the bench," and he was impressed by Morgan-Lloyd's study of American history, according to Shaner. Along with the "lovely letter" she wrote the judge, "I think it did have some impact on him," the lawyer said.

Whether judges show favor to her clients based on her recommended reading list, it personally helps those who are in pretrial detention, Shaner said, noting one client shared the Martin Luther King Jr. speeches she gave him with his entire jail unit.

Other defense lawyers may be hoping to take advantage of ambient political bias in the predominantly left-leaning Washington, D.C. with an argument intended to mitigate their clients' guilt: It's former President Trump's fault.

St. Louis lawyer Al Watkins, who admitted accepting $120,000 from an anonymous benefactor intended to help take down then-Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens with sexual-blackmail allegations, is representing the "QAnon Shaman" Jacob Chansley.

Watkins tried to get the Senate to accept testimony by his client in Trump's second impeachment trial, according to the Associated Press. In a statement released by Watkins, Chansley said Trump was "not honorable" and "let a lot of peaceful people down," and he apologized for "having aroused fear in the hearts of others."

"If you believe the government is correctly prosecuting [Trump], you can't at the same time hold criminally culpable those who were incited, because the people incited become victims," Watkins said. 

Schoen told Just the News the House managers for Trump's impeachment alluded to this argument, "although they claimed somehow that the guy with the horns [Chansley] and others taking this defense route had nothing to gain from it. Riiiiiiiight."

He expected that their lawyers would make a two-prong argument: Trump's "magnetism" is irresistible when combined with the "susceptibility" of their clients. Schoen claimed there are "several judges on the district court bench in DC who would welcome any arguments which seek to lay the blame" on Trump.

Prosecutors and some judges are inverting the argument, however, portraying January 6 defendants as dangerously helpless against Trump's ongoing magnetism.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan cited the former president's comments about a "stolen election" as reason enough to continue detaining Jack Whitton and Jeffrey Sabol, who were charged with beating an officer unconscious, Politico reported. Their "mistaken beliefs about the illegitimacy of the current administration," and the likelihood that the "fight is not finished" for them make the defendants too dangerous to release, the judge said.

Schoen said he saw "overuse of detention in many of the cases," where there's "no evidence of flight risk or danger to the community" based on the defendants' actions since January 6. "There certainly is no basis for using anything the former President is saying as justification for detention. He has unequivocally denounced any violence."

Shaner has practiced before D.C. federal judges for nearly 40 years, and she thinks they "bend over to try to be fair," particularly when they feel "any kind of animus" toward a defendant. The D.C. judges have a reputation as "very defense-oriented regardless of the charge."

She mentioned U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan as someone who is "not a leftist in any way." Hogan's affirmation of pretrial detention for a West Virginia businessman — who had already spent months in jail — is under appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

January 6 participants who simply entered the Rotunda shouldn't be charged with felonies, Shaner said, hoping they can take "parading" pleas like Morgan-Lloyd. It's going to be tougher for her clients who were marching with armed individuals, she said.

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