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‘Messages Have to Be Sent’: Judge Sends Smiling Florida Man to Jail for Carrying Nancy Pelosi’s Podium During Capitol Breach

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: A pro-Trump protester carries the lectern of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi through the Roturnda of the U.S. Capitol Building after a pro-Trump mob stormed the building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden's 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. A group of Republican senators said they would reject the Electoral College votes of several states unless Congress appointed a commission to audit the election results. (

Adam Johnson parades through the U.S. Capitol with a podium on Jan. 6, 2021. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.)

The man photographed with a smile on his face as he carried House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s podium through the U.S. Capitol Complex and engaging in other acts of mayhem on Jan. 6, 2021, has been sentenced to serve 75 days in jail.

That was the decision Friday of Senior U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, a George W. Bush appointee, for Adam Johnson, whose viral image became one of the most widespread depictions of the Capitol breach.

“Messages have to be sent,” Judge Walton said, that conduct detrimental to the “fundamental fabric of American society” will result in the loss of personal freedom.

The hour-and-a-half-long sentencing hearing at times veered toward fears that the United States was headed toward sociopolitical disaster — fears the judge said he recognized but struggled to mitigate.

In sentencing memorandums, Johnson’s attorneys asked for a sentence of time served, probation, and community service.  Federal prosecutors countered with a dueling request for 90 days behind bars.

Adam Johnson pleaded guilty on Nov. 22, 2021, to entering and remaining in a restricted building without lawful authority.

Johnson, then 36, of Parrish, Fla., was outed to the authorities by his own social media connections after a Getty Images photographer captured his visage during the early stages of the breach. Johnson’s photo was one of the first disseminated on Jan. 6, making him one of the noticeable faces of the deadly and destructive pro-Trump siege.

statement of facts filed in connection with Johnson’s plea says the defendant traveled from his home in Florida to Washington, D.C., to attend Donald Trump’s scheduled Jan. 6 political rally. According to the statement, Johnson carried a knife, discarded it near the Canadian embassy, and then entered the capitol complex.

The FBI pointed to pictures the defendant posted of himself online. One image showed the defendant standing near a sign which indicated the Capitol was “closed to all tours.” Federal court papers say the defendant also posed with Pelosi’s podium in addition to being photographed carrying said podium.

In a memorandum prior to the sentencing hearing, Johnson pleaded for leniency in part by saying he was married to a doctor and was a primary caregiver to his children due to his wife’s busy work schedule.

At the sentencing hearing, Judge Walton told the parties that they could remove their masks while speaking if they were fully vaccinated and boosted and if they remained behind plexiglas. He said those who were not fully vaccinated needed to remain masked throughout the hearing.  That command had to be repeated several times during the proceeding — specifically with reference to “counsel.”

Adam Johnson appears in a Pinellas County, Fla. Sheriff's Department mugshot.

Adam Johnson appears in a Pinellas County, Fla. Sheriff’s Department mugshot.

Prosecutor Jessica Arco asked a series of videos to be fully admitted into evidence. She said the videos painted a “compelling narrative” of the defendant’s conduct on Jan. 6. She called the moves “a threat to our democratic process” and the “rule of law.”

Though the defendant pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, Arco asked the judge to consider the severity of the broader events of Jan. 6 to put the defendant’s conduct into perspective.

“Mr. Johnson was part of a mob, and he knew that,” Arco said — and argued that there was “no way” Johnson could have considered himself to have been part of a “peaceful protest.”

Arco noted that Johnson was recorded on Jan. 5 — the day before the breach — screaming “whose fucking country?” in comments captured on video by a reporter. Arco played that video and several others for the judge to illustrate her points.

In another video played by Arco, Johnson wielded a “broken pole” while complaining about tear gas, the prosecutor said.

Arco characterized Johnson as among the people who fought their way into the Capitol Complex on Jan. 6.  Johnson climbed scaffolding before entering the capitol through the Senate Wing door, Arco noted; there was broken glass on the ground — a sign this was, at that point, a “violent” episode, the prosecutor said.  Inside the building, Johnson entered an office and posed by the aforementioned “closed to all tours” sign with a “smirk” on his face, Arco told the court. Eventually, Arco noted how Johnson waived while carrying Pelosi’s podium.

She went on to track the defendant’s movements through the Capitol — pointing again and again to the copious security camera footage in the government’s possession. During one video, Arco told the court that members of the House of Representatives were “barricaded” on the other side of a door as a violent crowd was outside. Johnson was in the crowd. “Stop the steal” the crowd started screaming over and over again in another video. Johnson was also among that mob.

One video, Arco said, showed “officers being crushed” by the pro-Trump “rioters.” Johnson admitted in a statement of the offense that he saw the officers being crushed, Arco noted. The prosecutor said Johnson “thankfully” chose not to turn down a hallway where Ashli Babbitt was shot and killed.

“This was not a peaceful protest,” and Johnson knew he was part of a violent mob, Arco told the court. She dismissed notions by Johnson that his actions were “patriotism,” constitutionally protected, or that he was simply there to document the happenings. Johnson at one point shouted that statue of George Washington would make a “great battering ram” to break down a door, Arco reiterated.

Defense attorneys Dan Eckhart and David R. Bigney countered by presenting Johnson’s family photos to the court.

The defense said Johnson was “one of the first people in that building” to “participate and help out the government” by cooperating in the prosecution effort.  The defense sought a considerably lenient sentence by — in part — pointing to Johnson’s cooperation; the defense hoped the judge would “send a message” to criminals that cooperation would be rewarded.

“It should be a factor,” one of the defense attorneys said while pointing to the “significance and usefulness of the information” Johnson said.

“Mr. Johnson has been 100% truthful and candid” with the government, the defense added. Plus, the defendant’s admissions were provided “early on” in the investigation.

The defense called Jan. 6 among the most “polarizing” legal events that have ever happened in the United States. “That was a terrible, terrible situation.”

“Just by being in that building,” Johnson “hurt the reputation” of American democracy, the defense added.

The defense complained about the “publicity” and “attention” which Johnson’s photo generated and said Johnson had been approached by unnamed “media” companies to “tell his story.” The defense said that any monies or profits made by Johnson by telling his story for the next five years will go to the U.S. Government.

“He’s embarrassed by what he did,” the defense attorney said.  “He wants to send out a message to everybody” that he did the wrong thing.

The defense reiterated that Johnson has received death threats for his conduct.

While the defense admitted that Johnson destroyed some evidence of his actions on Jan. 6, the defense countered that Johnson was not a “racist,” not a member of the “Proud Boys,” did not destroy evidence, and did not assault a police officer. At one point, Johnson stashed the pole he was carrying in a place where others hopefully would not find it. Johnson was not wearing tactical vests and communications devices.

“He’s trying to figure out a way to get out of there,” the defense said of Johnson while noting that it was hard for him to get out of the building once he was inside due to the onslaught of people. “This is not a violent man . . . he’s not pushing anybody.”

“He’s an observer” in “places he shouldn’t be,” the defense concluded. “He’s a trespasser” — the exact offense to which he pleaded guilty.

Johnson was a “close to a 4.0” student with five children; he gave up plans for medical school to marry a doctor and be a “stay at home dad,” the defense said.

The defense characterized Johnson’s “battering ram” statement as a one-off comment that wasn’t “acted upon.”

The judge countered some of the defense’s characterizations.

“It was more than just passive involvement,” the judge said. He cited Johnson’s suggestion about the “battering ram” and the defendant’s attempts to “jiggle the door” of Nancy Pelosi’s office to support his conclusion.

Judge Walton said Johnson’s decision to give a “speech” behind Pelosi’s podium and Johnson’s decision to delete evidence from his phone as further concerns that suggested against a conclusion that Johnson was merely trespassing.

“I do consider it a privilege to live in this country,” Johnson told the judge directly. He said that his actions, not his apology, were evidence that he was on the right track.

“I’ve given my time, my energy . . . to this on a daily basis,” Johnson continued. “There were things that happened that should never have happened, and I am ashamed to have been a part of it.”

After a few comments about his actions near Nancy Pelosi’s office, Judge Walton asked Johnson if the defendant was suggesting he was trying to merely take a photo with the speaker herself.

“If I did find her, I would ask for a selfie with her, if anything,” Johnson said of Pelosi. He didn’t directly suggest he was outside Pelosi’s office looking for a photo; rather, he suggested he had no ill will toward the speaker and would welcome seeing her some day.

Judge Walton said protesting was a “fundamental” part of the “American way,” but he said Johnson clearly indicated that the country “belonged” to people who supported President Trump.

Walton started to raise his voice when contemplating the logical ramifications of political polarization.

“When the other side wins, rather than accepting that as the American way, they believe they have a right to do whatever in order to have the person they want in power sitting in the White House,” Judge Walton said. “That’s dangerous. That’s what we see in banana republics.”

This was not the first time that Walton has expressed fears about the U.S. becoming a “banana republic.”

On Friday, Walton said he feared this country was headed toward something akin to the current Russian invasion of the Ukraine — in other words, a breakdown of American law, rules, norms, and political decorum.

“I don’t know what we do to stop it,” Walton said. “What do you do to send a message to the American public that it’s fine to protest but totally reprehensible” to “undermine the fabric” of the country by engaging in violence or trespassing.

“It’s mind boggling,” Walton said, that Johnson, as a father and primary caregiver to his children, decided to leave Florida to join a political rally.

Walton then reached back to his own upbringing as a stark contrast.

“My parents didn’t have any kind of an education, but they were good people,” Walton said. He said his parents were “good role models” who supported his education and would never have left him behind to engage in political violence.

“How can you call yourself a good role model?” Walton implored of Johnson as he cited Johnson’s decision to leave his children behind to engage in illegal conduct in Washington, D.C.

Johnson shockingly said he feared the country was “heading toward civil war.”

“There are so many disparities,” Johnson said, “we can’t even have conversations.”

Walton said political discourse was “ripping this country apart.” He suggested Johnson read books about how civil wars start and to contemplate how to avoid going down that road.

“What we’re experiencing right now is exactly” how civil wars start, Judge Walton said. “You contributed to that,” he told Johnson. “This situation was out of control, and I would have thought that somebody with your background . . . would not have let yourself get caught up in the mob mentality.”

Walton said Johnson had plenty of opportunities to “check out” and say “this ain’t right” before he entered the Capitol complex on Jan. 6.

“That’s something I just can’t overlook,” the judge rationed. “I do think in this case there has to be a prison sentence imposed.”

Judge Walton sentenced Johnson to 75 days in jail with credit for time served. That effectively results in a sentence of about 60 days.

The judge ordered a one-year period of supervised release — he initially contemplated a two-year period but walked it back — along with 200 hours of community service to be served in increments of at least eight hours a week.  The judge further ordered a $5,000 fine (to be paid in increments of at least $150 a month), restitution of $500 (to be paid to the architect of the capitol), and a $25 special assessment fee (to be paid to the court). Johnson will be allowed to self-surrender and to serve his time at a facility close to his home so that he can remain having contact with his children, the judge said.

The term of supervised release will require at least one drug test, the judge noted. It requires that Johnson not be re-arrested, requires cooperation with probation officers, and requires Johnson to submit a DNA sample to the government.

Read the statement of the offense, Johnson’s plea agreement, and the sentencing memoranda from both sides below:

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Aaron Keller holds a juris doctor degree from the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a broadcast journalism degree from Syracuse University. He is a former anchor and executive producer for the Law&Crime Network and is now deputy editor-in-chief for the Law&Crime website. DISCLAIMER:  This website is for general informational purposes only. You should not rely on it for legal advice. Reading this site or interacting with the author via this site does not create an attorney-client relationship. This website is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. Speak to a competent lawyer in your jurisdiction for legal advice and representation relevant to your situation.