Ex-Proud Boys leader Joseph Biggs sentenced to 17 years for US Capitol riot

Biggs receives second-longest sentence of anyone charged in connection with the storming of the US legislature on January 6, 2021.

Joseph Biggs
Proud Boys member Joseph Biggs, left, had been found guilty of seditious conspiracy for his role in the riot at the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC [File: Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press]

A former leader of the far-right Proud Boys group has been sentenced to 17 years in prison for his role in storming the United States Capitol, as part of a failed attempt to overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory.

The sentence for Joseph Biggs, 33, marks the second-longest prison term handed down for anyone involved in the US Capitol riot on January 6, 2021. Biggs, along with three other members of the Proud Boys, was found guilty of seditious conspiracy and other felonies in May.

Before Thursday’s proceedings, Biggs apologised for his actions on January 6, crying as he asked for leniency in order to stay with his daughter, who he said was a sexual assault victim.

“I was seduced by the crowd, and I just moved forward. My curiosity got the better of me,” Biggs said of January 6. “I’m not a terrorist. I don’t have hate in my heart.”

More than 1,106 individuals have been charged in connection with the Capitol riot, wherein supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the seat of the US legislature in an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. Approximately 597 have been convicted and sentenced.

Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers, another far-right group, had previously been sentenced to 18 years in prison in a separate seditious conspiracy case. Seditious conspiracy — established under a Civil War-era law — makes it a crime to conspire to oppose the government by force.

Two of Biggs’s co-defendants — Enrique Tarrio and Ethan Nordean — had not yet been sentenced after also being convicted of seditious conspiracy.

Another co-defendant, Zachary Rehl, received a sentence of 15 years shortly after Biggs’s hearing. He told the court on Thursday, “I regret involving myself with any of it,” as he broke down crying.

A fifth Proud Boys member, Dominic Pezzola, was acquitted of seditious conspiracy in May but was convicted of other serious charges.

Though Biggs’s 17-year sentence is one of the longest for a January 6 case, US District Judge Timothy Kelly ultimately opted for a prison term below the typical sentencing guidelines. It was also far less than the 33-year prison term sought by federal prosecutors.

Kelly said on Thursday that he was not “trying to minimise the violence” that occurred on January 6. But he said the event was not comparable to a mass casualty event and therefore did not justify the longer sentence.

Nevertheless, the judge underscored that Biggs’s sentence was meant to communicate “a need for deterrence”.

“That day broke our tradition of peacefully transferring power, which is among the most precious things that we had as Americans,” Kelly said of January 6, adding that it “should not ever happen again”.

On Thursday, federal prosecutor Jason McCullough defended the decision to seek a lengthy sentence.

“These are very serious crimes,” he said. “There is a reason why we will hold our collective breaths as we approach future elections. … They pushed this to the edge of a constitutional crisis.”

Prosecutors hinged their case on a trove of messages that Proud Boys leaders and members privately exchanged in encrypted chats — and publicly posted on social media — before, during and after the Capitol riot.

They said the leaders of the group were prepared for “all-out war” and “saw themselves as Donald Trump’s army, fighting to keep their preferred leader in power no matter what the law or the courts had to say about it”.

Lawyers for the defence argued that the prosecution had not presented sufficient evidence given the severity of the seditious conspiracy charge. They argued that the US Department of Justice was unfairly holding their clients responsible for the violent actions of others on January 6.

The sentencing comes weeks after Trump himself was indicted for his actions during the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath. Federal prosecutors have accused Trump of seeking to defraud the US, as well as conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding and violating citizens’ rights to have their votes counted.

Trump has also been charged in Georgia for his efforts to subvert the state’s election results. In addition, he faces two separate criminal proceedings — a state case in New York and another federal case in Florida — unrelated to the election, for a total of four criminal indictments.

Trump has pleaded not guilty in all of the cases, which he claims are part of a political effort to derail his 2024 presidential ambitions.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies