COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — A federal judge who sentenced a California architect on Friday to probation for her role in the Capitol riot stressed that the Jan. 6 insurrection “represented a threat to democracy” and continues to resonate “in sad and unfortunate ways.”
U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman noted that security fencing has gone up around the Capitol in preparation for a rally on Saturday by what he called “misguided” people protesting what they allege is the mistreatment of jailed insurrectionists who tried to stop the certification of former President Donald Trump’s loss to Joe Biden.
Friedman sentenced Valerie Elaine Ehrke to three years of probation and ordered her to perform 120 hours of community service.
Justice Department prosecutors said they recommended a probationary sentence for Ehrke because she was inside the Capitol for about one minute, only stepped about 15 feet into the building and didn’t engage in any violence or property destruction. Friedman said Ehrke’s role in the insurrection was “about as minimal as it gets.”
More than 600 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the riot. Ehrke is one of about 70 defendants who have pleaded guilty to riot-related charges.
Friedman noted that some believe the jailed insurrectionists are “patriots.”
“And some of them may be on some level. But on another level, the conduct they engaged in in order to pursue their beliefs is not First Amendment speech and not First Amendment legitimate protest,” Friedman said. “What came to be was a riot, was an incitement, was an insurrection.”
He echoed another judge’s position that probation shouldn’t be the “automatic outcome” for misdemeanor convictions like Ehrke’s. Everybody who stormed the Capitol “represented a threat to democracy, to our democratic norms, and continue to resonate in sad and unfortunate ways,” Friedman said.
Ehrke is the seventh Capitol riot defendant to be sentenced. She pleaded guilty on June 30 to illegally parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building.
Over 40 other Capitol riot defendants have pleaded guilty to the same misdemeanor offense, which carries a maximum sentence of 6 months imprisonment and a $5,000 fine.
Ehrke told the judge that the Jan. 6 riot was “such a unique situation.”
“I did not have the depth of experience to understand that I needed to get out of there or stay away,” she said.
In a letter submitted to the court before her sentencing, Ehrke called herself “a fine member of society” who often picks up trash in her neighborhood and has worked on architectural projects in her community free of charge.
“I am a small town girl who loves my town, my state and my country,” she wrote.
Prosecutors asked Friedman to sentence Ehrke to three years of probation and 40 hours of community service. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Birney said Ehrke was among the first Capitol riot defendants to agree to plead guilty.
“The government places a lot of weight on that,” he added.
Ehrke traveled to Washington, D.C., from her home in Arbuckle, California, on Jan. 5 to attend Trump’s speech on the following day. After hearing the speech, she initially returned to her hotel room.
“However, when she saw a news story about how people were going to the U.S. Capitol, she decided she wanted to be part of the crowd,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing.
Ehrke recorded and uploaded videos to Facebook as she walked to the Capitol, including one with a caption that said she was heading to the “breached” building. Ehrke would have heard an alarm sounding throughout the Capitol when she entered. She was stopped at the back of a crowd of people when police started pushing them back through a hallway and out of the building through a door.
“We made it inside, right before they shoved us all out. I took off when I felt pepper spray in my throat! Lol,” Ehrke posted on Facebook.
The picture for Ehrke’s Facebook profile was a flaming “Q,” an apparent reference to the QAnon conspiracy theory. Many QAnon followers believe Trump was fighting a secret campaign against a Satan-worshipping cabal of deep state enemies, prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites operating a child sex-trafficking ring.
The riot disrupted the certification of the 2020 Electoral College vote count. More than 100 law enforcement officers were injured during the mob’s attack, which also caused more than $1 million in property damage.