The U.S. justice system’s outstanding accounts with the leadership of the far-right Proud Boys militia were settled Tuesday when its former national chairman, Enrique Tarrio, was sentenced to 22 years in prison in a Washington courtroom. The presiding judge, who defined Tarrio as the “ultimate ringleader of the conspiracy” surrounding the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol, applied the aggravating circumstance of “terrorism,” to his ruling, and duly handed down the longest sentence among the hundreds already convicted of participating in the attack on American democracy in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2020 election defeat to Joe Biden.
The Proud Boys gained notoriety in the turbulent early 2020s by targeting protests around the country, including those that followed the police killing of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis. Around 200 of the militia’s membership took part in the insurrection at the U.S. Congress building on the same day that Trump spoke at the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington and urged his supporters to “fight like hell” and accused Democrats of attempting “the most brazen and outrageous election theft.”
Five members of the Proud Boys (in addition to Tarrio, Joe Biggs, Zachary Rehl, Ethan Nordean, and Dominic Pezzola) were found guilty last May after a 15-week trial. Four of them were convicted of seditious conspiracy. All five, for obstruction of a parliamentary procedure: the democratic transfer of power to Biden after his victory over Trump in the presidential elections of November 2020, a result that the former president still questions today.
Seditious conspiracy is a charge that is not levied lightly; it was created to prosecute those who rose up against the Union during the Civil War (1861-1865) and, until the January 6 trials, had not been applied in decades. The other four Proud Boys leaders were sentenced last week: Nordean, who the judge understood to have served as a lieutenant that day in Tarrio’s absence, received a record sentence of 18 years; Biggs, 17; Rehl, 15; and Pezzola, 10.
Tarrio was scheduled to be sentenced last Wednesday but the hearing was delayed due to an illness affecting the magistrate, U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly, an appointee from the Trump White House administration. Prosecutors had sought 33 years in prison for Tarrio. On Tuesday, the judge’s decision, which due to be delivered during the afternoon, was delayed until the last minute, while he deliberated whether to add the aggravating factor of terrorism. Despite the request of the prosecution, Kelly had not done so in his previous rulings. Tarrio’s lawyer, Nayib Hassan, said that his client is not a terrorist, but a “misguided patriot.”
Judge Kelly does not appear to have been moved by the fact that on January 6, 2021, Tarrio, a 39-year-old Cuban-American from Miami, was not in Washington. He followed the assault on television around 40 miles from the scene in a hotel in Baltimore: the police had issued an order prohibiting Tarrio from setting foot in Washington following his arrest in the city for burning a Black Lives Matter flag at a church. Prosecutors believe he incited dozens of Proud Boys to march on the Capitol and sent them messages encouraging them to stay the course as events unfolded.
After the riot, Tarrio, as the judge noted, wrote on social media: “Make no mistake. We did this.” Later, however, he gave several interviews in which he tried to distance himself from the actions of his militia on January 6. One of them, Pezzola, was the first to enter the Capitol after breaking a window with a shield he had snatched from a riot police officer. Around 150 police officers were injured in the attack. Shortly before he was sentenced Tuesday, after tearful testimony from his fiancé, sister and mother, Tarrio said that he has “always had “great respect” for law enforcement. “I hope one day I can personally apologize to them,” he added. He also addressed the citizens of Washington — “I am deeply sorry for what happened that day” — members of Congress — “There can be no place for political violence” — the American public — “January 6 was a national disgrace” — and the judge: “Please show me mercy. I ask you that you not take my 40s from me”. In his reading of the sentence, Kelly doubted Tarrio’s sincerity.
Tarrio was spotted on January 5 in the vicinity of the Capitol, in a subway parking lot in the meeting with Stewart Rhodes, leader of another extremist group involved in the insurrection, the Oath Keepers. Rhodes was also found guilty of seditious conspiracy and sentenced to 18 years in prison in May, with the aggravating factor of terrorism applied. That ruling had set the previous record in the January 6 case, defined by Attorney General Merrick Garland as the largest in the history of the U.S. Department of Justice. More than 1,100 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the insurrection and over 600 have been convicted and sentenced.
Trump has been indicted for attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in both Washington — where he is scheduled to sit in the dock on March 4, 2024 — and Georgia, where he has been charged along with 18 others defendants under the RICO Act for allegedly participating in a wide-ranging conspiracy that involved conspiracy to commit a crime, pressure on witnesses and conspiracy to falsify documents, among a total of 13 counts.
The former Republican president also made an appearance at the Proud Boys trial, held at the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse. One of the judge’s first rulings was to admit into evidence a video of Trump allegedly giving an order to the Proud Boys during a presidential electoral debate with Biden. “Stand back and stand by,” Trump said, earning the militia the nickname of “Trump’s Army.”
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