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Judge delivers 19-month sentence for threats made after Capitol riot

“Words do matter, and words can be weaponized, and that’s what happened here," a federal judge remarked while sentencing Brendan Hunt. His federal trial was the first related to the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol.

BROOKLYN (CN) — The Queens man who called for a violent return to the nation’s Capitol following the Jan. 6 riot will serve 19 months in prison, a federal judge ruled Monday. 

Brendan Hunt, 37, was convicted of threatening to kill members of Congress in a video he posted online two days after the attempted insurrection in Washington. 

“We need to go back to the U.S. Capitol, when all of the senators and a lot of the representatives are back there, and this time we have to show up with our guns. And we need to slaughter these motherfuckers,” Hunt said in the video, posted on the streaming platform BitChute under the username X-Ray Ultra.

In the video, Hunt referred to the government as a “ZOG,” or Zionist-Occupied Government, a term used by white supremacists. At trial, prosecutors presented further evidence of racist and anti-immigrant leanings, including text messages laden with slurs

Addressing the court, Hunt said on Monday that associating him with Nazis and white supremacy was “an ungly, untrue, unfair lie.” 

“It puts people in fear irrationally, as I think it did to the jury,” Hunt said. 

He explained that he felt “powerless to push back” against unfair treatment of conservatives in the media, and that his response was “terribly misguided, it was wrong, and I’ve paid a very heavy price."

“For a brief period of time in 2020 I succumbed to anger, as it is contagious, like a pandemic,” Hunt said. “This is not my normal way of dealing with issues or my normal personality.” 

But Hunt’s beliefs were not the basis for the year and a half prison sentence, U.S. District Judge Pamela K. Chen said repeatedly during a nearly four-hour hearing. 

“I am certainly not going to in any way, for lack of a better word, punish him for having views that are distasteful or offensive,” said Chen, a Barack Obama appointee. Nor would she conclude the nature of his beliefs: “I don’t find that he is a hardened white supremacist.” 

However, Hunt “crossed the free speech line” with the video, titled “Kill Your Senators,” she said. “Words do matter, and words can be weaponized, and that’s what happened here.” 

Chen cited blame-shifting and a lack of true responsibility as reasons that incarceration “might be the best thing for you.” 

“What seems clear to me is that Mr. Hunt has been infantilized and coddled for a good part of his life and his family members have always been willing to swoop in and save him ... and try to solve his problems,” she said. 

In his bid to be sentenced to the 10 months he spent incarcerated, Hunt said he now appreciates how good his life was before going to jail. 

“Sitting in a jail cell for 10 months may be the worst best thing to ever happen to me. It gave me time to reflect on my behavior going back many years,” Hunt writes. “I realize I spent a lot of time blaming my parents when they were just trying to make me a better person. And though I maintain my innocence of the charge against me, I understand that my words were the last thing anyone needed to hear.”

Hunt concluded his letter with a hunting analogy that prosecutors called “bizarre” and Judge Chen characterized as “strange, to be sure.” 

“It’s as if I went deer hunting but stepped in a bear trap and got mauled by a grizzly,” Hunt’s handwritten letter reads. I might have had a deer hunting license, and feel like I shouldn’t be attacked by a bear, but I shouldn’t have been out there hunting deer in the first place because they are one of the most beautiful animals in the world.” 

In the letter, Hunt apologized to his family and the court system, but not members of Congress he targeted, argued Assistant U.S. Attorney Ian Richardson, who had argued for a sentence of 51 to 63 months.

“In his last submission to the court, he’s the victim,” Richardson said. “He’s the victim of his own threats against members of Congress, which he still continues to believe are OK.” 

While Hunt’s attorneys argued that their client never owned a firearm, nor took any steps to carry out attacks against the U.S. government — he did not attend the Jan. 6 riot — Richardson said that was beside the point. 

“This is a serious crime, but it’s not serious because the defendant was actually going to murder members of Congress,” he said. “It’s because he took advantage of the January 6th attack at the Capitol to make people think he would.” 

A month before the riot, Hunt called out Democratic Congress members in Facebook posts, naming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The jury ultimately found that those comments did not constitute true threats, basing his conviction only on the BitChute video. 

Leticia Olivera of the Federal Defenders of New York pointed to violence in American political discourse, including the recent censuring of Republican Representative Paul Gosar for disseminating a cartoon that showed his face on an anime character slicing the throat of a character digitally altered to look like Ocasio-Cortez. 

“A sitting member of Congress posted a video of himself murdering another member of Congress,” Olivera said, noting that Gosar was censured but not criminally prosecuted. “And after that happened, he doubled down and retweeted the video,” sending a message that such rhetoric is legal and acceptable, she said. 

Hunt worked for the state’s court system until his January arrest. He is the son of a retired Queens family court judge, who was present throughout the trial in the overflow courtroom used for public viewing under pandemic precautions. 

After Hunt’s sentencing on Monday, he turned to face his father and shrugged before exiting the courtroom with his attorneys, who did not respond to a request for comment before publication time. 

“We will not tolerate threats to members of the United States Congress or calls to overthrow our democratically elected government,” U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said in a statement. “Not only will we investigate and vigorously prosecute these crimes, but today’s sentence sends a clear message that those who seek to harm our representatives and bring chaos to our democracy will be punished.”

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