Dane Powell, the first of the more than 200 defendants arrested for rioting on Inauguration Day to be sentenced on felony charges, was led out of the court in handcuffs Friday to begin serving the four months of two 36-month sentences Judge Lynn Leibovitz handed down for felony rioting and felony assault on a police officer.
The judge argued that her ruling "addressed only Mr. Powell's conduct" and not that of the other defendants. "He's not one of the persons whose participation was limited to marching, chanting, or wearing black," Leibovitz said as she handed down her sentence. An off-duty police officer standing near the back of the room beside a U.S. Marshall said "damn right."
Though many of the charges against the defendants are based on wearing black or covering their faces while in proximity to an alleged "black bloc" group that destroyed property, even Jennifer Kerkhoff, the prosecutor, who was herself wearing a black jacket in court, agreed that Powell's case is "not about wearing black…not about wearing a mask."
Unlike the other defendants, Powell pleaded guilty to the two felonies in April. It is the only felony plea out of the more than two hundred cases.
In court Friday, the government showed a video compilation that highlighted Powell's participation in the destruction of property on Inauguration Day, first showing him standing with a group holding a black flag, whose pole he later used to smash a window. Later in the video, Powell was seen throwing rocks, though the prosecutor did not allege that he actually hit an officer.
The defense played their own video highlighting Powell's nine years of military service, his work feeding the homeless with Food Not Bombs, his political engagement at Standing Rock, and his importance to his family and community.
In a remarkable letter, sent to the defense team the night before the sentencing, a woman who said she did not otherwise know Powell detailed her encounter with him on January 20 when, her letter said, her child was pushed into the street by police officers as pepper spray and the sound of flashbang grenades filled the air. A stranger ran up and rescued the kid, according to the letter, read out loud in court, and rushed him to safety. That man was Powell.
Powell himself did not deny that he destroyed property and threw rocks and expressed remorse for any harm that he caused—without apologizing for the political beliefs behind those actions. He stood before the judge and asked for leniency in sentencing.
Leibovitz, who will be trying the cases of the J20 defendants through the end of 2018, did not find an entirely suspended sentence appropriate, but she did agree to suspend much of the jail time, saying that she took his acceptance of responsibility into account.
After the verdict, dozens of Powell's supporters stood in the hallway, a few in tears. Greggory Pemberton, a detective in the case, appeared jubilant as he walked out of the courthouse with Kerkhoff. Pemberton, who would not comment on the record, is the treasurer for the D.C. Police Union, which endorsed Donald Trump in 2016.
Kerkhoff characterized Powell as a "violent coward."
"You hid your face," she said. "You ran away."
Outside of the courthouse, Legba Carrefour, a member of the Dead City Legal Posse, a group that works "to protect First Amendment activity" in the District, disagreed with that characterization.
"The prosecution multiple times referred to Dane Powell as a coward. I think that what Mr. Powell did was anything but cowardly," he said. "Taking a confrontational stand against the encroaching rise of fascism is an absolute must right now. It is an act of bravery."