Man who threatened Democrats online sentenced to 19 months in prison
By Rebecca Davis O’Brien
Steeped in white supremacist and antisemitic propaganda, Brendan Hunt was bent on sowing chaos and intimidating Democratic lawmakers when he posted calls on social media to take up arms against the U.S. Capitol, prosecutors said at his trial in April.
The case tested the line between political speech and illegal threats — a question that continues to figure prominently in court cases and public debates around the country since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — and Hunt was eventually convicted of threatening to murder Democratic members of Congress.
But as his sentencing approached, Hunt’s lawyers sought to paint a different picture of their client. They called Hunt, 37, a “radical thinker” with wide-ranging opinions and talents, whose trial — for what they describe as his “worst moments” — pushed the constitutional limits on protected speech. They said he had been changed by his 10 months in custody, during which he forged an unlikely friendship with another prisoner: disgraced R&B superstar R. Kelly.
In Brooklyn on Monday, Judge Pamela K. Chen sentenced Hunt to 19 months in prison — more than the time served that Hunt’s lawyers had requested, but less than prosecutors had sought. The punishment, she said, reflected the gravity of his actions and his lack of evident remorse.
The sentence did not, however, reflect distaste for Hunt’s offensive beliefs, Chen said. “The defendant was not convicted of, nor is he going to be sentenced for, committing a thought crime, or for simply exercising his First Amendment rights,” the judge said. “It was not simply outlandish political expression. The defendant here crossed the free speech line when he threatened members of Congress.”
Hunt was not at the Capitol riot, though his trial was held in its shadow. His conviction carried a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
In a statement to the court Monday, Hunt criticized prosecutors for portraying him as “some neo-Nazi white supremacist,” calling it “lazy rhetoric” and saying their case was “based on fear.” He also apologized to his family, and said he was “truly sorry” for how he expressed his anger.
“I felt, for a long time, powerless to push back on what I saw as unfairness in the way conservatives were treated,” Hunt said, also citing the partisan name-calling “that was tolerated by the media when it was convenient to them.”
He said that his response to this “was terribly misguided, was wrong, and I’ve paid a heavy price.”
Before the charges, Hunt, an aspiring actor, held a clerical job with the New York state courts system. (He has since been fired.) He also had a long history of promoting violent conspiracy theories online, including that the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax and that grunge rock star Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in 1994, was murdered.
The case against Hunt centered on a series of social media posts he made starting in December 2020, in which he encouraged the public execution of prominent Democrats in Congress, including Sen. Chuck Schumer and Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
A central question at the trial was whether a “reasonable person” would view Hunt’s statements as serious threats. Prosecutors had to show that Hunt meant to interfere with the official duties of members of Congress, or to retaliate against them for certifying the election.
The statements included two Dec. 6 Facebook posts in which he described the Democratic lawmakers as “high-value targets,” and exhorted like-minded citizens to “start up the firing squads, mow down these commies, and lets take america back!”
Hunt testified at trial in his own defense, an unusual move in criminal trials because it exposes the defendant to cross-examination and charges of perjury. He said that he was not attempting to intimidate members of Congress, and that his statements had no intended audience. “I was letting off steam and it was more online blathering than anything,” he said.
Hunt said he had spent two years listening to heated political rhetoric from Republicans and Democrats, “and getting wrapped up in it.” It felt like he was in the stands of a football stadium, he said, “with everybody drinking beer,” and “then all of a sudden I felt like the lights in the stadium went out and the spotlights all came on me.”
After a weeklong trial, the jury found Hunt guilty. Jurors said they found the video to be an illegal threat, but not the Facebook and Parler posts; they only had to find one of the posts was a threat to convict Hunt.
Hunt’s lawyers said his time behind bars was like a boot camp: He learned to “look down, not ask questions, accept his subservience,” and made “lasting friendships with some of the most unlikely characters.”
As evidence of his artistic talents and his ability to “find positive ways to endure troubles,” his lawyers included in their sentencing memorandum portions of comic strips Hunt drew while incarcerated — one of which featured Kelly, who was among Hunt’s rotation of cellmates before Kelly’s racketeering and sex-trafficking trial. (Kelly was found guilty in September.)
The two lived together for a few weeks over the summer while Hunt awaited sentencing, and the comic depicts the pair discussing Kelly’s music and attempting yoga poses.
That image of Hunt — palling around and lifting weights with Kelly, who is Black, in a jailhouse comic strip — appeared to be an effort to counter federal prosecutors’ description of Hunt as a violent white supremacist, and to show a more sensitive side of their client.
At Monday’s sentencing hearing, which lasted nearly four hours, one of Hunt’s lawyers, Leticia Olivera, said the government had “assigned labels” to Hunt, and wanted the judge “to assess his future dangerousness based on his unpopular views.”
In their sentencing memorandum, prosecutors wrote that Hunt threatened his own family members, “consumed white supremacist and antisemitic propaganda” online, and expressed an affinity for Adolf Hitler. They noted that Hunt repeatedly referred to members of Congress as part of a “ZOG,” or “Zionist Occupied Government,” an antisemitic conspiracy theory.
The BitChute video, prosecutors wrote, “was no poorly worded off-the-cuff statement.” Rather, in the days after the Jan. 6 attacks, Hunt “deliberately used the shock of this event to amplify his own threats.”
In court Monday, Ian C. Richardson, an assistant U.S. attorney, said the effect of Hunt’s threats was not just felt by the elected officials, but by anybody who might seek higher office. “Those people are going to think twice if people like the defendant can get away with threatening to murder them,” he said.