Some Jan. 6 defendants win early release ahead of key Supreme Court decision

The Supreme Court's decision is expected to impact more than 100 Capitol riot cases.
U.S. Capitol Jan. 6

Judges are ordering Jan. 6 defendants who fought against their sentences to be released early pending an appeal as the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments next week about the legitimacy of a key charge that many of them were indicted.

The attorneys of three Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot defendants are set to argue before the Supreme Court that the crime of obstructing or impeding an official proceeding is only limited to destroying evidence in governmental probes, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

Many Jan. 6 defendants were charged under this obstruction law, which Congress passed following the Enron scandal to make it illegal to shred documents like the collapsed company's accounting firm was doing amid multiple federal investigations.

Most trial judges, 14 out of 15, upheld the prosecutor's use of the charge in connection to Jan. 6, but Trump-appointed Judge Carl Nichols disagreed.

The charge has been used in "many, many cases" as a catchall to prosecute obstruction, not just crimes connected to the Jan. 6 riot, and courts around the country have held it up, Georgetown Law professor Julie Rose O’Sullivan said.

"I’m not sure they’re going to read it narrowly," she also said. "They could, but I’m not sure that’s the best result."

If the Supreme Court rules against the three defendants challenging the charge, they and the others who were released early may be ordered to return to prison, but it is not guaranteed. The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling by the end of its term in early July at the latest. The decision is not expected to impact most of the 1,350 Jan. 6 defendants, as they are charged with violent felonies or misdemeanors such as trespassing, but it may affect more than 100 obstruction cases. 

The charge may also impact special counsel Jack Smith's 2020 election case against former President Donald Trump, as two of the four charges he was indicted on are obstruction and conspiring to obstruct the election.

The releases are allowing some people convicted in connection to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot to serve a fraction of their sentence.

For example, Kevin Seefried, a Delaware man who carried a Confederate flag into the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and was sentenced to three years in prison for his actions that day, was set to be released in 2025, but he is being released just more than a year into his sentence.

Meanwhile, Ohio man Alexander Sheppard will be released in May after serving six months of his 19-month prison sentence.

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