A Jan. 6 rioter was convicted and sentenced in secret. No one will say why
ALANNA DURKIN RICHER and MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Hundreds of rioters have been charged, convicted and sentenced for joining the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol. Unlike their cases, Samuel Lazar's appears to have been resolved in secret — kept under seal with no explanation, even after his release from prison.
Lazar, 37, of Ephrata, Pennsylvania, was arrested in July 2021 on charges that he came to the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, dressed in tactical gear and protective goggles, and used chemical spray on officers who were desperately trying to beat back the angry Donald Trump supporters.
There is no public record of a conviction or a sentence in Lazar's court docket.
But the Bureau of Prisons told The Associated Press that the man was released from federal custody this week after completing a sentence for assaulting or resisting a federal officer. Lazar was sentenced in Washington's federal court on March 17 to 30 months in prison, according to the Bureau of Prisons, but there's no public record of such a hearing. He had been jailed since July 2021.
Questions about Lazar's case have been swirling for months, but the details of his conviction and sentence have not been previously reported.
The Justice Department has refused to say why the case remains under wraps, and attorneys for Lazar did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Associated Press. The judge overseeing Lazar's case in May rejected a request from media outlets — including the AP — to release any sealed records that may exist.
The case is raising concerns about transparency in the massive Jan. 6 investigation — the largest in Justice Department history. Court hearings and records — including sentencing hearings and plea agreements — are supposed to be open and available to the public and the press unless there's a compelling need for secrecy.
Lazar was transferred in July from FCI Fort Dix — a federal lockup in New Jersey — to "community confinement" overseen by the Bureau of Prisons, which means he was either in home confinement or a halfway house, according to a prisons system spokesperson.
A social media post from Lazar's sister that month shows Lazar standing outside waving an American flag with the caption: "Hallelujah Praise God free at last ... #walkingfree."
Secret plea hearings are not unheard of, though the records are often unsealed ahead of sentencing.
In an unrelated example, the guilty plea by George Papadopoulos, the former Trump campaign adviser who triggered the Russia influence investigation, was entered under seal and kept out of view for weeks — until special counsel Robert Mueller disclosed that Papadopoulos had admitted making false statements to the FBI. Subsequent proceedings, including his sentencing hearing, were matters of public record.
George Washington University criminal law professor Randall Eliason, who spent 12 years as a federal prosecutor in Washington, said he couldn't remember any case during his Justice Department tenure in which a sentencing hearing and sentence were placed under seal. Eliason said it's possible that "either there's some kind of security concern about him personally, or maybe more likely that he's cooperating in some respect that they don't want the people he's cooperating against to know about."
But many Jan. 6 defendants have cooperation deals with the government, and their cases haven't been resolved in secret. Defendants who agree to cooperate with prosecutors often get their sentencing hearings delayed until they finish cooperating.
"The fact that he also got sentenced, went to prison and is already out, that whole situation is just unusual," Eliason said.
Lazar is among more than 1,100 defendants charged with federal crimes related to the Jan. 6 attack. Outside the Capitol that day, Lazar was carrying a bullhorn and wearing ski googles, a tactical vest with a radio attached and camouflage-style face paint.
Videos captured Lazar approaching police lines outside the Capitol and discharging an orange chemical irritant toward officers, an FBI agent said in a court filing. An officer's body camera showed Lazar retreat down steps after police deployed a chemical at him. Lazar then turned and sprayed two officers, according to the agent.
Lazar shouted profane insults at police through the bullhorn, calling them tyrants and yelling, "Let's get their guns!" Another video captured Lazar saying, "There's a time for peace and there's a time for war."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Robin Meriweather in Washington, D.C, ordered Lazar detained pending trial, ruling that he posed a threat to public safety. The magistrate noted that Lazar also had been photographed posing with firearms on a public street during an August 2020 rally.
In January 2022, a new indictment charged Lazar with five counts, including felony offenses. He pleaded not guilty to the charges the following month. In March 2022, prosecutors and Lazar's attorney asked for more time "to negotiate a disposition of the matter short of trial."
In June 2022, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson canceled a status conference for Lazar's case because he wasn't available to appear by video from jail. That's the last publicly available court filing to address the status of the case.
In April of this year, attorneys for a coalition of news outlets — including the AP — asked the judge to unseal any records related to a change of plea or sentencing hearing for Lazar, noting a March NBC News story — citing an anonymous source — that said Lazar was scheduled to be sentenced in a secret hearing.
"The public docket provides no explanation as to why, despite the strong presumption of transparency in this Circuit, these judicial records are not available to the public," the coalition lawyers wrote.
After Lazar's secret sentencing, his brother told Lancaster Online — which first reported his release from prison in July —- that their mother was "even more confused," adding "she has no idea if and when he's coming home, assuming he was actually given a sentence today."
In May, Judge Jackson denied the news outlets' request after a prosecutor and defense attorney argued against releasing the records, though she said the case law cited by the press coalition "plainly recognizes that there may be circumstances where a need for secrecy can be outweighed by competing significant interests."
Jackson said there were no "undocketed" records in this or any other case pending before her, adding that "nothing has been sealed in this case without leave of court." But the judge said the news outlets could renew their request, setting a Sept. 29 deadline for its lawyers to file "an updated status report setting forth their position or positions on this matter."
Richer reported from Boston. Associated Press reporter Eric Tucker contributed from Washington.