Home arrest or 5 years in prison: The case for, against NC Jan. 6 defendant Matthew Wood

  • In US
  • 2022-11-27 11:00:00Z
  • By Charlotte Observer

Matthew Wood's future swings on an open-ended question: What's a just punishment for the North Carolina man's crimes at the deadly Capitol riot?

The 25-year-old, part-time college student from Reidsville pleaded guilty in May to a series of felony and misdemeanor charges tied to the Jan. 6, 2021, violence, which has been linked to at least five deaths as well as injuries to some 140 police officers.

But while other N.C. defendants are accused of assaulting officers with their fists, chemical sprays, flag poles, bike racks and other weapons, documents in Wood's case describe him more as a witness, cheerleader and online scribe of the violence rather than a direct participant.

Yet, Wood's prosecutors have recommended he serve 57 months, which would be the longest prison term handed down to date against an N.C. defendant.

In her court filings, Wood's attorney, Kira West of Washington, D.C., argues pointedly that her client has been targeted by a pair of over-zealous prosecutors who act like they are holding a grudge.

"Never in (my) entire legal career (have I) seen the government go after a criminal defendant with such gusto and seething animosity," West wrote in her recent sentencing memorandum.

She says her client's behavior at the Capitol merits home confinement and community service only, not an active sentence.

"For a young defendant with no criminal history and one who committed no violence nor encouraged it (on Jan. 6, 2021), the government's stance is mind-boggling," she writes.

Prosecutors present a different point of view. As with West, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Sean Murphy and David Henek use highly charged language to make their case for Wood's lengthy prison stay.

Wood, they write, was an eyewitness in the Capitol as "grossly outnumbered police officers were being viciously attacked and overrun by rioters. And then Wood went deeper. His aggression and yelling and incitement were not tempered when he saw the fear in the faces of police officers, it was inflamed."

The latest legal arguments in Wood's case reopen a debate within the sprawling Justice Department prosecution of the Capitol rioters, namely, whether Jan. 6 defendants charged with similar crimes have faced widely different punishments.

Early next month, North Carolina offers a potential case in point.

Similar crimes, different punishments?

On Dec. 6, Easton Cantwell of the Asheville area will be sentenced by a Washington judge for his role in the Jan. 6 riot. According to court documents, Cantwell's criminal behavior at the Capitol was strikingly similar to Woods.

Both initially were charged with six counts. But five of Cantwell's charges were dropped as part of a plea deal with his prosecutors. Wood pleaded guilty to the felony and five misdemeanors included on his March 2021 indictment.

The felony conviction in both cases is for the same crime: Obstruction of an official proceeding. Yet of the two, Cantwell appears to have had more direct physical contact with police: He took part in a "heave ho" push against a line of officers inside a tunnel leading into the Capitol and later helped shove a flagpole at police, documents show.

Cantwell's prosecutors describe his behavior as "egregious," and that he failed to show remorse after his arrest. Yet, they have recommended he spend five months in prison, less than a 10th of Wood's proposed term.

Wood and Cantwell are among at least 25 N.C. residents charged in connection with the riot, during which thousands of supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol to block congressional certification of Trump's defeat to Joe Biden.

More than 900 arrests have been made. At least eight North Carolinians have pleaded guilty to felony charges. One has been sentenced. Former Fort Bragg soldier James Mault received 44 months after being caught on camera outside the Capitol repeatedly attacking police with chemical spray.

Wood's sentencing originally was scheduled for Friday, Nov. 18 but was canceled two days before and had not yet been rescheduled as of Wednesday. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, who will sentence Wood, currently is hearing the Jan. 6-related sedition trial of members of the right-wing militia group, the Oath Keepers.

'Brave heart in that bitch'

In their sentencing memorandum, Murphy and Henek say Wood knew violence was coming when Trump beckoned his supporters to Washington for his "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6. Wood, they say, was eager to take part.

"I am down for whatever they want to do!," Wood said in a message he sent four days before the riot. "If they want to raid Congress, sign me up, I'll be brave heart in that bitch."

On the night before the assault, Wood sent another message - that if he died on Jan. 6, he was leaving his car to a friend. The car was red, Wood wrote, "like the blood I will shed."

On the morning of Jan. 6, according to prosecutors, Wood quickly abandoned his grandmother, who had joined him for the drive from Reidsville, 115 miles northeast of Charlotte, and quickly joined the swelling mob descending on the Capitol.

He climbed scaffolding and waved a Trump flag to urge the crowd to join the attack, prosecutors argue, writing: "While the thousands of rioters on restricted grounds may not have been able to see the violence happening between the rioters and the police officers, they could see Wood, standing tall, waving his flag, and waving folks forward."

Later, according to the filing, Wood was among the very first rioters to enter the Capitol through a broken window on the Senate wing. Once inside, he stayed for two hours, joining ranks at one point with other rioters to chase police up the stairs, prosecutors say.

Wood later was among those who broke into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office. There, prosecutors say, he stole something from a security desk and drank from a glass of water left on a conference room table.

Afterward, he expressed both exultation and remorse at what he had seen and done.

"I don't regret my actions because they were honest and pure actions to send my government, Congress a message," Wood wrote on Jan. 8.

"We patriots fought for our country. Few died for this cause, many injured because of it ... I am proud I took a stand. But the things I experienced is nothing to be proud about."

'A terrible mistake'

In computing Wood's sentence, prosecutors added an 8-point enhancement for a threat or physical injury to person or property and 2-level jump for destroying evidence on his cell phone before volunteering to meet with the FBI. That brings the adjusted sentencing range to 51-63 months. Prosecutors split the difference in coming up with their recommended sentence.

In response, West accuses the government of misapplying the sentencing guidelines far beyond the nature of Wood's actions.

"He did not cause any damage, nor did he engage in violence," she wrote. "... Nor did he engage in actively encouraging violence. That's different than encouraging others to protest."

While boasting online of fighting police, Wood never did, West says. Refuting a government claim, West says there is no evidence Wood chased police inside the Capitol, and that he acted more like an immature 23-year-old than a violent insurrectionist.s

Like thousands of others, she writes, Wood was sucked into the protest by Trump's conspiracy of lies and right-wing media reports of a stolen election.

Moreover, West submitted a dozen or more cases in which Jan. 6 defendants accused of similar or worse crime were either not sent to prison or, in some cases, even charged with felonies. Against that backdrop, she says, the government's sentencing recommendation in Wood's case is highly excessive.

"Matt is a kind, smart, young kid who made a terrible mistake on one day," Wood wrote. "This Court should not allow the government to engage in such posturing."

In a letter to Judge Mehta, an Obama appointee, Wood asked to not be sent to prison so he could continue rebuilding his life. He also apologized for his mistakes.

"For choosing to trust one single man, the President," Wood wrote. "For failing to read my surroundings appropriately. For not knowing when to walk away. For making decisions that hurt my country. For saying, texting things that were untrue. For putting myself in a situation I could not grasp or understand.

"I neglected one of America's most valued rights, the right to protest. I went too far."


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