A federal judge in Washington grilled prosecutors Thursday on whether misdemeanor plea deals they had offered some Capitol riot defendants had contributed to attempts by President Donald Trump’s allies to rewrite the history of what happened during the Jan. 6 insurrection.
That line of questioning — courtesy of Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell — came as she sentenced a Montgomery County man to two weeks’ incarceration and two months’ house arrest for his participation in the attack.
Brian Stenz, 51, of East Norriton, was caught on security cameras vaping as he ambled through the chaos inside the Capitol that day. He later joined a crowd, including several Philadelphia Proud Boys, that left the office of Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) trashed.
Stenz pleaded guilty in November — as part of a deal struck with prosecutors — to one misdemeanor count of illegally parading, picketing, or demonstrating on Capitol grounds.
Howell on Thursday likened the charge to a ticket given to someone who shouts during a congressional hearing. She suggested that allowing Jan. 6 rioters to plead to charges with words like picketing and demonstrating had allowed some right-wing figures to minimize the gravity of what happened that day.
“This was not a protest,” she said. “It bears repeating.”
Howell noted that earlier this month the Republican Party took the official position that the insurrection — which interrupted the certification of the Electoral College vote, left hundreds of police officers injured, caused more than $1 million in property damage, and, for the first time in history, threatened the peaceful transfer of power — amounted to “legitimate political discourse.”
“This was not legitimate political discourse,” she countered. “Does the government accept some responsibility in its charging and plea offer decisions … for helping to foster some confusion as to what happened on Jan. 6?”
Howell is not the first of the 22 judges in Washington handling riot cases to question the Justice Department’s decision-making. And Howell has repeatedly raised the issue in hearings over the last several months.
Of the more than 730 people charged so far, more than 150 have entered plea deals to the misdemeanor “parading and demonstrating” charge. Those deals, prosecutors have said, are reserved for those accused only of entering the building illegally. More serious cases involving charges of assaulting officers or planning the attack remain pending.
Twelve defendants from Pennsylvania and New Jersey have pleaded guilty to the “parading or demonstrating” charge and faced sentencing so far. Only four have been ordered to spend time behind bars. The others have received some combination of house arrest and probation.
Howell noted Thursday there are other misdemeanor charges to which the government could have insisted the defendants plead guilty that would have better captured the seriousness of their offenses — including “violent entry and disruptive conduct on Capitol grounds.”
But James Pearce, an attorney with the Justice Department’s criminal appellate division, insisted that the plea deals the department has offered thus far have furthered the goal of bringing rioters to justice.
“I don’t think it’s the [DOJ’s] role to be involved in the political discussion regarding the political significance of Jan. 6,” he told Howell. “What we are doing is making sure the defendants bear criminal responsibility.”
For his part, Stenz sat silently in the D.C. courtroom beside his attorney through much of the debate. When it came time for him to address the court, he agreed with the judge.
“What happened at the Capitol building was far from a protest. It was really horrible,” he said. “It was one of the darkest days our country has seen in a long time — maybe forever, and I just want to disassociate myself with that.”
A father of three and employee at a paving company, Stenz had spent all his life in Montgomery County and was registered as a Democrat during the 2020 election, according to voting records.
His wife, in a letter submitted to the court, said he’d lost his job early on in the coronavirus pandemic and became a Trump fan due to his efforts to blame China for the disease.
“For the first time in our life, we felt maybe [the president] will care about all of us,” she said.
In court, Stenz said he felt a certain sense of jubilation during the eight minutes of chaos he spent inside the Capitol on Jan. 6.
While he acknowledged entering Merkley’s office — which he said he thought was “some sort of library or gift shop” — he maintained he did not participate in its trashing.
Photos from that day show four Philadelphia Proud Boys had also crowded into the room, including their leader, Zach Rehl, who was caught on camera smoking in the office. Brandon Fellows, a New York rioter who was also in the room, has described the scene inside as “just a bunch of people lighting up [and] smoking a bunch of weed in there.”
Stenz said he saw the destruction and decided to leave. It was only after he returned home that he began to feel ashamed, he said.
Within weeks he voluntarily identified himself to the FBI, ignoring advice he said his attorney gave him to just wait and see whether investigators would identify him on their own.
Howell credited his voluntary confession. But she questioned the seriousness of his remorse.
She noted that at the time Stenz joined the riot, he was already facing criminal charges in Montgomery County for lying about his criminal record while trying to buy a gun. And he’d previously been convicted of a string of misdemeanor charges.
He violated his probation for those crimes with daily consumption of THC, according to court records. (His attorney noted he had a medical marijuana card at the time.)
But after reviewing security footage of Stenz vaping in the Capitol, Howell balked, asking: “Was Mr. Stenz high on Jan 6?”
“You’d have to ask him,” his attorney, Joseph Marrone, responded. “But was he relaxed on Jan. 6? I think the answer is probably yes.”
Despite her earlier concerns, Howell ultimately agreed with the sentencing recommendation suggested by prosecutors. And in addition to ordering Stenz’s imprisonment and house arrest, she also imposed $3,000 in fines and restitution and a three-year term of probation — a punishment Howell noted should ensure Stenz remains under court supervision for the next two election cycles.
Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.