A growing number of Capitol rioters have gone back on their guilty pleas and apologies – including one of the most recognisable faces from 6 January.
Standing in court, Jacob Chansley seemed like a changed man.
Shorn of the horned headdress, furs and face paint that helped earn him the nickname the QAnon Shaman, he was pleading guilty to obstructing an official proceeding. The charge stemmed from his part interrupting a join session of Congress, and carried a maximum prison term of 20 years.
“I am truly, truly repentant for my actions, because repentance is not just saying you’re sorry,” he said. “Repentance is apologising and then moving in the exact opposite direction of the sin that you committed.
“In retrospect, I would do everything differently on January 6th.”
A judge called his apology “the most remarkable I’ve heard in 34 years” and sentenced him to 41 months in prison – considerably less than the maximum allowed.
Now more than a year-and-a-half later, Angeli is out of jail early, and his remorse is gone.
“Regrets only weigh down the mind,” he told the BBC. “They’re like sandbags on a hot air balloon.”
His about-face is such that he is even taking his case back to court to ask his guilty plea to be reversed. And he is far from the alone in changing his mind about the events at the Capitol.
Since 6 January 2021, over 1,000 people have been charged over their participation in the riots, and almost half have pleaded guilty. But chatter on online forums and media coverage shows a small but growing number have started to have a change of heart. Emboldened by shifting views of the riots, some have sought to recast their actions, and even benefit from their notoriety.
Facing 30 days in prison and three years of probation, Athanasios Zoyganeles pleaded guilty last year to illegally demonstrating in the Capitol.
But like Angeli, he has since changed his mind. He told a reporter this month that he didn’t do anything wrong and had been persuaded into an admission.
His lawyer has since asked to delay sentencing.
Capitalising on the Capitol riots
In addition to walking back regrets, a number of rioters have tried to capitalise on their involvement in the riots in a number of ways.
Derrick Evans, a former member of the West Virginia state legislature, resigned his post after being arrested. He pleaded guilty, apologised in court, and served three months in prison.
Now he is running for a seat in the US House of Representatives, and he refers to himself and other defendants as “political prisoners”.
The term is commonly used across a broad section of the right and far-right of American politics to cast rioters as heroic and patriotic.
“I think as time continues to go on, I’m going to be proven to be on the correct side of history,” he told the BBC recently.
Christina Baal-Owens, executive director of Public Wise, a voting rights organization that has worked to prevent 6 January rioters from being elected to office, said more and more rioters were using their public profiles to boost their political aspirations, especially in the lead-up to the 2024 elections.
“The far-right and January 6 rioters are trying to flip the narrative and make themselves martyrs,” she said.
A key moment for many was when Tucker Carlson aired small edited snippets footage of the day, which appeared to show rioters behaving peacefully inside Congress.
The footage on his now-cancelled Fox News show fuelled the narrative that they were largely peaceful demonstrations, and emboldened some, like Evans, to run for office.
“We’re finally at the point where people such as myself, who went through this January 6 process and have already served our time in prison, are finally able to start speaking out and sharing the truth,” Evans said.
The ferocity of feeling in some quarters means that some rioters have been able to raise funds – or social media clout – off of their newfound fame.
On one popular Christian site, GiveSendGo, there are at least 150 campaigns mentioning the Capitol riot which have collectively have raised more than $4.1m (£3.2m).
In some cases, prosecutors are trying to recoup those funds.
After he pleaded guilty to entering a restricted building, Daniel Goodwyn, a member of the Proud Boys, appeared on television calling the Jan 6 defendants “political prisoners”.
He made pleas for donations, raising more than $25,000. Prosecutors have since sought to fine him the same amount.
John P Gross, a criminal law expert at the University of Wisconsin, said that having a change of heart can carry legal risks.
The concept of “trial penalty” means that in general, defendants who plead guilty receive lighter sentences than those convicted after a trial. Judges also have leeway to impose harsher sentences if they believe defendants aren’t truly sorry.
“A judge can absolutely take lack of remorse into consideration when sentencing,” he said. “I would tell a client, under no terms whatsoever should you be saying anything to the media between when you are plead and when you are sentenced.”
But what happens if someone has already served their time, and wants to take it all back?
In order to change his guilty plea, Angeli must convince a judge he received ineffective representation from his original lawyer, Albert Watkins. He now says that statements his lawyer made in an attempt to mitigate his crimes weren’t true.
“I never said I was duped by Trump,” he told the BBC. “I never denounced Q or the QAnon community… and I am not schizophrenic, bipolar, depressed or delusional.”
In an email, Mr Watkins denied that he had said his client had denounced QAnon or was delusional and described Angeli as a “gentle, young man who, in his own way, is very bright and talented. I wish him nothing but the best.”
Legally, rioters who try to take back a guilty plea are getting into potentially risky territory, said Mr Gross. It’s rare for courts to allow someone to do that, and when they do, they run the risk of facing a new trial – something that federal prosecutors have underlined in their response to Angeli’s case.
“I wouldn’t endorse it as a legal strategy,” Mr Gross said.
Because of his ongoing case, Angeli didn’t answer questions about his actions during the riot. But he implied that spending time in solitary confinement – which he called “a form of soft torture” – led to his original decision to plead guilty.
Angeli has used his notoriety to boost his profile since exiting prison. He has a podcast, runs online courses and sells merchandise on his website – including selling $44 flags, $33 t-shirts and $17 mugs.
He is also back to spreading conspiracy theories online, insisting that he is only trying to spread the truth about a variety of government plots.
And while he backed away from his statement in court that he would have done everything differently during the Capitol riot, he did express one thought that sounded almost like a regret.
“I really tried to stop people from going crazy,” he said. “I would have tried a lot harder had I known what was going to happen.
“But who’s going listen to the crazy guy in the face paint and the horns telling everybody to calm down?”