A federal appeals court on Friday ordered a new sentence for a North Carolina man who pleaded guilty to a petty offense in the Capitol riot — a ruling that could impact dozens of low-level cases in the massive Jan. 6, 2021 prosecution.
The appeals court in Washington said James Little was wrongly sentenced for his conviction on a misdemeanor offense to both prison time and probation, which is court-ordered monitoring of defendants who are not behind bars.
Little, who entered the Capitol but didn’t join in any destruction or violence, pleaded guilty in 2021 to a charge that carries up to six months behind bars. He was sentenced last year to 60 days in prison followed by three years of probation.
But the 2-1 opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said that probation and imprisonment “may not be imposed as a single sentence” for a petty offense, adding “there are separate options on the menu.” Judge Robert Wilkins, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama, dissented.
The decision could invalidate the sentences of dozens of Jan. 6 defendants who received what is known as a “split sentence” for a petty offense. More than 80 other Jan. 6 defendants have been sentenced to both prison time and probation for the same misdemeanor offense as Little, according to an Associated Press analysis.
The practical effect, however, may be limited as almost all of them have likely already served their prison terms long ago. Little’s attorney had asked the appeals court to simply order an end to his probation monitoring since he already served his 60 days behind bars.
An attorney for Little declined to comment on Friday. The Justice Department could appeal the decision. A spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington said: “We are reviewing the Court’s ruling and will determine our next steps in accordance with the law.”
Some judges who have imposed such sentences in misdemeanor cases have stressed the need to keep tabs on Jan. 6 defendants after they serve their time to prevent them from engaging in such conduct during the next election. While on probation, defendants have to check in with a probation officer and follow certain conditions.
“The Court must not only punish Little for his conduct but also ensure that he will not engage in similar conduct again during the next election,” the judge who sentenced Little, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, wrote in a ruling last year.
“Some term of imprisonment may serve sentencing’s retributive goals. But only a longer-term period of probation is adequate to ensure that Little will not become an active participant in another riot,” he wrote.
On Jan. 6, 2021, Little went to President Donald Trump’s speech ahead of the riot and then walked to the Capitol, where he fist-bumped other rioters and went into the Senate Gallery, according to court records. After leaving the Capitol, he and others prayed on the Capitol steps and sang “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” by Twisted Sister, according to court documents.
More than 1,000 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the Jan. 6 riot. More than 600 of them have pleaded guilty or been convicted after trials decided by a jury or judge. About 600 have been sentenced, with over half getting terms of imprisonment ranging from three days to 18 years.
Richer reported from Boston. Lindsay Whitehurst in Washington contributed.