“I’ve referred to this as the midlife crisis insurrection,” said Bennett Clifford, a senior research fellow at the center.
While some of the defendants arrested are accused members of anti-government groups like the Oath Keepers or the Proud Boys, Clifford said the vast majority appear to have no known connection to extremist groups. Instead, he said those who allegedly participated in the riot appear to have been inspired by the rhetoric of the Trump administration and its supporters in the months leading up to and weeks following the November election.
Beyond that, Clifford said the defendants are a pretty disparate group spread across the nation, representing rich and poor areas and conservative and liberal counties in roughly equal numbers. Large states like Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida and New York have the greatest number of defendants, but the spread is in line with population density and proximity to Washington, he said.
In many ways, Georgia’s defendants reflect the national group. They are all white, 85% are male and they range in age from 18 to 58. Half of them come from the metro Atlanta suburbs, while the rest are spread around the rest of the state.
Several come from professional backgrounds. Americus attorney William McCall Calhoun, 57, was among the first wave of people to flood the Capitol. Registered nurse Lisa Marie Eisenhart, also 57 from Woodstock, strode through the building with her son, a 30-year-old bartender from Nashville, who became known as the “zip-tie guy” when photos showed him carrying plastic handcuffs through the Senate.
The group includes several business owners: Kevin Douglas Creek, 46, of Johns Creek, owner of a roofing business; fencing contractor Jack Wade Whitton, 30, of Locust Grove; and Glen Mitchell “Mitch” Simon, 30, owner of a tree removal company.
While not exactly wealthy, many of the defendants come middle and upper middle class backgrounds. That makes some sense for defendants from states outside the immediate D.C. area, Clifford said. People who made the decision to come to Washington on Jan. 6 had to be able to pay for it.
“They needed to at least be of some means to not only afford a trip to D.C., but all the other costs and economic calculus that needed to be done to make it worth it,” he said. That means many of the people arrested were “very solidly middle class, if not higher.”
Milton’s Bruno Cua represents both ends of the spectrum. Cua was 18 at the time of his arrest for storming the Senate floor and assaulting an officer, the youngest of any of the Jan. 6 defendants. Cua, who has since turned 19, came from an upper-middle class family and lived in a large home on three acres in one of metro Atlanta’s richest suburbs.
Cua’s parents drove their son to Washington for former President Trump’s ‘Save America’ rally and have since acknowledged poor judgment in facilitating his alleged crimes.
A common thread
Yet seven of the Georgia defendants have been assigned public defenders. That list includes most of the younger defendants, including 20-year-old Savannah McDonald and 21-year-old Nolan Kidd. The east Georgia duo, arrested last month, allegedly posted selfie photographs of themselves inside the Capitol on social media and gave video interviews to independent journalists when they emerged.
An interesting case is Cleveland Grover Meredith, a 53-year-old defendant who spent much of his life in metro Atlanta before recently moving to north Georgia and across the state line into the North Carolina mountains.
Meredith attended private schools, graduating from the Lovett School in North Atlanta before getting a degree in economics from the prestigious Sewanee: The University of the South in Tennessee. After graduation, Meredith opened Car Nutz Car Wash in Cobb County with a business partner.
The car wash drew attention in 2018 when Meredith paid for an electronic billboard featuring the business logo alongside a gigantic QAnon hashtag about a mile from the business on Cobb Parkway. Meredith sold the business in 2019 and moved to Hiawassee. Shortly before the 2020 election, he moved a few miles across the border to Hayesville, N.C.
Meredith missed the riot, arriving too late after apparent car trouble delayed him. Authorities arrested him a D.C. hotel, confiscating an assault rifle, ammunition, and a cell phone with a series of texts threatening violence, including threats to kill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After his arrest, Meredith applied for a federal public defender, but after a hearing in February, a federal judge determined he did not qualify as indigent.
Even with their varied backgrounds, prosecutors say the cases have the most important thing in common.
“Every single person charged, at the very least, contributed to the inability of Congress to carry out the certification of our Presidential election,” federal attorneys wrote in a recent court filing.
Early pleas set bar
So far, only a handful of defendants have agreed to plead guilty. Floridian Paul Allard Hodgkins, 38, pleaded guilty July 19 to one felony count related to his participation in the riot and received an 8-month prison sentence. In his plea, Hodgkins said he regretted his role in the unrest, calling it “a foolish decision on my part.”
Last month, 54-year-old Oath Keeper Graydon Young, also of Florida, pleaded guilty to two felony counts and agreed to assist prosecutors in building their case against 15 other members of the far-right group accused of conspiracy and other felonies in the Capitol insurrection. He faces more than six years in prison, but prosecutors could recommend a lighter sentence if his cooperation proves valuable.
Buddy Parker, a former federal prosecutor in the Northern District of Georgia, said the sentence handed down to Hodgkins — who was accused of entering the Capitol through an open door and parading in the Senate chamber — sets a minimum standard for felony convictions of accused insurrectionists. Defendants accused of planning the attack, fighting police or prying open doors can expect stiffer penalties, he said.
“I believe those individuals are going to face serious, serious sentences,” he said. “I mean, more than 10 years.”
Accused leaders of the insurrection, such as the handful of members of violent extremist groups, could face sentences that — given their ages — would effectively mean they could spend the rest of their lives in prison, he said. Parker said he does not think such defendants can anticipate undue mercy from the court.
“It’s an assault on the nation,” he said. “I don’t think there is a United States federal judge who wouldn’t take that into account.”
Most Ga. cases await resolution
At the same time, judges and prosecutors have to deal with hundreds of defendants who did not strike at police and were not part of a larger conspiracy. They will want to encourage those defendants to plead guilty rather than clog the courts.
“You want to make it clear to others in the same situation that their lives won’t be destroyed by a guilty plea,” he said. “You have to whittle down these non-violent offenders and move them through.”
None of the cases involving Georgia defendants have reached the stage where a plea deal is on the table. That could change soon.
In the final analysis, these aren’t complex cases, Parker said. In a hearing July 21, a federal prosecutor handling the case for Whitton and four other defendants from other states accused of brutally attacking police outside the Capitol said she expects “at least one official plea offering soon.”
Given that all of these cases involve photographic or video evidence, often from multiple angles, documenting the defendants’ alleged participation in the riot, Parker said he expects defense attorneys will strongly advise many of their clients to cut a deal.
“If they think they are going to avoid conviction, they have a constitutional right to a trial by jury,” Parker said. “But they also have a constitutional right to be stupid.”