“It has to be made clear that trying to violently overthrow the government …is going to be met with absolutely certain punishment,” Judge Tanya Chutkan said.
WASHINGTON — A Florida man who attacked police during the Jan. 6 insurrection — hurling a wooden plank at officers, spraying them with a fire extinguisher, then throwing the canister — was sentenced on Friday to spend more than five years in prison.
The 63-month sentence for Robert Palmer is the longest prison term imposed to date in connection with the Capitol riot. In announcing the sentence, US District Judge Tanya Chutkan praised the bravery of law enforcement officers who unsuccessfully tried to hold off the mob at the Capitol. She pointed out the US marshals in the courtroom and explained to Palmer that marshals ran from the courthouse to help respond at the Capitol a couple blocks away as the attack unfolded.
“The men and women who kept democracy functioning that day and saved lives, they deserve the thanks of this nation. They didn’t deserve to have fire extinguishers thrown at them,” Chutkan said.
The judge told Palmer that his punishment had to “make it clear that the actions you engaged in, cannot happen again.”
“It has to be made clear that trying to violently overthrow the government, trying to stop the peaceful transfer of power and assaulting law enforcement officers in that effort is going to be met with absolutely certain punishment,” Chutkan said of Palmer’s sentence. “Not staying at home, not watching Netflix. Not doing what you were doing before you got arrested in this case. That there are going to be consequences.”
Palmer’s sentence was in line with what the government had argued for. The judge rejected Palmer’s attempts at lowering the range of potential prison time that he faced heading into sentencing, agreeing with the US attorney’s office that a fundraising message he posted online after he pleaded guilty in October that suggested he was acting in self-defense when he assaulted police at the Capitol cut off his chances of getting credit for accepting responsibility.
The judge said she wasn’t persuaded that Palmer was entitled to a lesser sentence because of difficulties he faced as a child and the lack of criminal charges for former president Donald Trump and others who promoted false post-election conspiracy theories and inspired the thousands of people who stormed the Capitol after attending Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally. Chutkan pointed out that there were other people who shared Palmer’s belief that the 2020 election was stolen, but not all of them went to Washington.
“He didn’t like the results and he didn’t want the transition of power to take place because his guy lost,” Chutkan said. “The issue of who has or has not been charged is not before me. I don’t have any influence about that. I have my opinions, but they are not relevant.”
Friday’s hearing continued Chutkan’s streak of handing down some of the stiffest penalties in the Jan. 6 cases. Her comments to Palmer about him not “staying at home” echoed similar remarks she made in October in a case where she imposed a sentence that was harsher than what prosecutors sought for a rioter who pleaded guilty to a nonviolent misdemeanor crime.
Chutkan has since gone above the government’s recommendations in a handful of Capitol riot cases, even as some of her colleagues have taken the opposite approach and rejected jail sentences in favor of probation and fines for misdemeanor offenders. Chutkan is a former public defender, and has brought up that experience in explaining that she understands how difficult incarceration can be and in rejecting attempts at comparing the insurrection to last summer’s protests against racism and police brutality.
Palmer participated in the attack on the Capitol a few hours after the initial breach on Jan. 6. He was first identified by HuffPost in March and arrested soon after. The government presented photos in court filings that showed Palmer, wearing an American flag jacket and a red baseball cap that said “Florida for Trump,” in different areas in front of the west side of the Capitol. At around 4 p.m. he was seen holding a sign on a terrace that read, “Biden is a Pedophile.” He cheered on rioters trying to push a large flagpole into a tunnel where police were guarding an entrance, and then he moved to the opening of that tunnel. He threw a wooden plank at officers, deployed a fire extinguisher at them, and then threw the empty canister.
Once he’s released, Palmer will spend an additional three years on supervised release.
Palmer’s plea agreement estimated that he would face a sentence between 46 to 57 months in prison if he received credit for accepting responsibility. But after he posted a fundraising message on the platform GiveSendGo — writing that he’d been shot by police using rubber bullets and decided to “go on the defense and throw a fire extinguisher at the police as I could not believe they had just shot me” — the judge agreed with prosecutors that he shouldn’t get that credit. Without it, his sentencing range went up to 63 to 78 months; sentencing guidelines aren’t binding on judges, but judges tend to stay within them.
At Friday’s hearing, Palmer told Chutkan that the narrative in the fundraising post was a lie and he apologized for it. His lawyer had argued that the post was a response to Palmer coping poorly with the “stress” of being placed in jail after he entered his guilty plea in October and that Palmer had taken it down — and refunded donations he received — after his lawyer told him it was a bad idea.
Palmer apologized for his actions at the Capitol. He told the judge that while he was in jail he’d used a tablet to watch footage of himself from Jan. 6 that had aired on MSNBC and was “horrified.”
“I’m really, really ashamed of what I did,” he said, vowing to never attend another political rally.
In a final plea for leniency, Palmer’s attorney Bjorn Brunvand said that although his client had been hesitant about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, he’d gotten his first shot a few days ago. Chutkan said she was glad to hear that. She added that she wasn’t punishing people for what they believed or who they supported, but thought that Palmer’s decision to get vaccinated showed that he was capable of “reflection” and changing his mind after listening to information from a variety of sources.
The judge said that Palmer received a lot more “leeway” than other people charged with violent crimes, pointing out that after the insurrection he’d been able to leave the Capitol and go home, and that a judge had then allowed him to go back home after he was charged and arrested.
After announcing the sentence, Chutkan said she hoped that Palmer’s show of remorse was genuine and urged him to set a good example for his children.
“Show your children that while we make mistakes and we can do bad things, it does not make us irredeemable people,” Chutkan said. “Good luck to you sir.”