The first time Gina Bisignano ran afoul of the law in Washington, D.C., she was recorded standing on a ledge in front of a broken window on the U.S. Capitol Building’s West Terrace, adorned in a Louis Vuitton sweater and Chanel boots. “We the people are not going to take it anymore. You are not going to take away our Trumpy Bear!” the Beverly Hills cosmetologist bellowed through a bullhorn on Jan. 6.
“Everybody, we need gas masks. We need weapons. We need strong, angry patriots to help our boys, they don’t want to leave. We need protection,” she yelled, her mascara running from tear gas.
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Two years and multiple criminal charges later, Bisignano returned to Washington on March 1 of this year — and promptly ran afoul of the law again. Bisignano’s return journey to D.C. involved a deal she struck with prosecutors in which she pleaded guilty to four misdemeanors and two felonies and agreed to cooperate with investigators and the Department of Justice in return for special considerations at sentencing.
Nominally in D.C. to testify against a former associate, Bisignano took a detour to a vigil held near the jail where several dozen alleged insurrectionists were awaiting their trials. There, she shared details of her testimony in an ongoing trial, spoke with a convicted Jan. 6 felon, and admitted to hanging out with other Jan. 6 participants.
All of these were violations of the terms of her pre-trial release, and all of them — again — were caught on camera. But despite her Jan. 6 actions and her pre-trial agreement violations, Bisignano is not in jail. Instead, she’s on a particularly lenient version of house arrest as she awaits trial after withdrawing her guilty plea for felony obstruction of an official proceeding. She has already pleaded guilty to six counts, including felony civil disorder, and awaits sentencing after her felony trial concludes.
The supposed unjust treatment and persecution of Jan. 6 participants has become core to the prevailing conservative counter-narrative around the violent riot, an account that characterizes the participants as “political prisoners.” But contrary to the claims of heavy-handed political persecution, cases like Bisignano show how, in some instances, the legal system has afforded Jan. 6 defendants a far more judicious process than standard federal criminal defendants. And indeed, many experts believe the insurrectionists have been given far softer treatment than one might expect for attempting to storm the Capitol to block the certification of a presidential election.
“As a general trend, the January 6 people, especially given the violent nature of their protest, got off quite lightly in terms of the charges they face [and] the average sentence they face when they plead guilty and/or are found guilty,” says Wadie Said, a former federal public defender who studies national security prosecutions at the University of South Carolina School of Law. “That doesn’t mean that the result is always in their favor or that they don’t get punished, but just that their claims are certainly heard more, and their position certainly seems to be understood a little bit more.”
Early indications suggest that insurrectionists are, in fact, getting off easy. Data examined by Slate on the first anniversary of the insurrection found that Jan. 6 defendants were receiving significantly lighter sentences than what prosecutors have asked for. They also, at least as of the one-year mark, enjoyed a far higher rate of pretrial release — 70 percent — than other federal defendants, only 32 percent of whom were granted pretrial release.
Even outside of the immediate political context, other demographic factors may play a role in the disparate treatment, says Georgetown Law Professor Vida Johnson. Federal criminal defendants are disproportionately young, male people of color, and largely face charges related to drug and immigration violations — crimes that are highly racialized in their own right — whereas 93 percent of charged Jan. 6 participants are white, according to the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment, citing the ongoing matter. In response to a request for comment, Bisignano’s lawyer Charles Peruto tells Rolling Stone, “Any comment I give would just add to the over exposure this defendant has received. Therefore, I feel it’s best to do all of my talking in court.”
For obvious reasons, Bisignano received almost immediate and arguably disproportionate attention following the Capitol breach. In an interview with The Beverly Hills Courier following the riot, she said that she was initially unaware of plans to breach the Capitol. “I didn’t know we were storming the Capitol,” she recalled thinking. “I should have dressed different.”
This sartorial claim of innocence did not seem to persuade investigators, and Bisignano was soon arrested and charged with six misdemeanors and two felonies.
Among the first wave of insurrectionists charged for their actions, Bisignano faced both a public and a legal system at the zenith of its outrage and concern over the assault. With the indictment of more central actors like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers more than a year away, Bisignano does appear to have had the book thrown at her at first. A magistrate judge imposing a $170,000 bail on her and even after making bail, a federal judge ordered her back in custody, where she spent the next month.
But Bisignano’s fortunes improved as Jan. 6 went from a source of shame among the right to a cause célèbre.
The legal tides turned for her in August 2021 when she reached a deal with prosecutors, pleading guilty to six of the counts, including two felonies, and agreeing to cooperate with the Department of Justice and investigators. In court before Judge Carl J. Nichols, Bisignano expressed contrition for her actions on the day. At that point, she was looking at between 41 to 51 months in federal prison, with hopes of receiving a lighter sentence for her help.
But the relationship between Bisignano and prosecutors quickly deteriorated, with audio leaking in February 2022 of a conversation she had with supporters in which she spoke out against her plea deal and backtracked on her apology to Judge Nichols. Her attorney soon filed to undo her guilty plea on the felony count of obstructing an official proceeding.
Yet even with questions surrounding Bisignano’s cooperation, in a May 4 hearing concerning her pretrial violations and plea deal, Judge Nichols allowed Bisignano to back out of the guilty plea for felony obstruction of an official proceeding. Bisignano’s usefulness as a witness had also come into question, with the judge presiding over a separate case in which she provided testimony describing Bisignano as a “hot mess” and one of the worst witnesses she had ever seen take the stand.
Said characterizes the ruling as “unusual,” explaining that defendants face a high burden to reverse a guilty plea.
Ironically, the apparent latitude afforded to Bisignano by her judge has now placed her in more legal jeopardy, with a guilty verdict potentially delivering a higher sentence than she would have received as part of her deal with prosecutors.
Nichols’ ruling on her guilty plea came alongside a hearing on Bisignano’s many pretrial violations stemming from what prosecutors termed the “January 6 Block Party.”
Bisignano had long taken a liberal interpretation of her pretrial release agreement, which explicitly forbids “communications with anyone who was at the event on January 6, 2021,” speaking about the case with anyone aside from her “attorney, [the] government, and people that are directly associated with your case,” and maintaining a presence on social media. Furthermore, the terms exhort her to “avoid all contact, directly or indirectly, with any person who is or may be a victim or witness in the investigation or prosecution.”
Her visit to Washington wasn’t even the first time Bisignano had rallied on behalf of Jan. 6 participants.
A year to the day after the insurrection, on Jan. 6, 2022, Bisignano — her face partially covered by a pink Louis Vuitton scarf — appeared at a Beverly Hills rally held in honor of Ashli Babbitt, who was fatally shot by police while attempting to get closer to lawmakers. At least one other Jan. 6 participant was present at the rally. Bisignano also went to a May 2022 rally organized by a convicted Jan. 6 participant, Brandon Straka, and was caught on camera speaking with Siaka Massaquoi, an actor who entered the Capitol on Jan. 6.
It’s unclear whether prosecutors are aware of these incidents. While prosecutors cite two documents in reference to other violations, they remain restricted to the public.
But Bisignano did not have the same luck when she went to the March block party in Washington this year.
Broadcast nightly via livestream, the festive vigil featured live music, barbecue, and pie — and even once received a call from Donald Trump, who inveighed that Jan. 6 prisoners “are being treated very, very unfairly” — an increasingly common refrain among conservative politicians and their base.
Capitalizing on the growing clout of the insurrectionists, a MAGA rapper joined the vigil on March 1 to film a music video with Micki Witthoeft, the mother of Ashli Babbitt, who was shot by Capitol police while attempting to enter the Speaker’s Lobby. (“They left blood on the Capitol steps, yeah, they set us up / Patriots fightin’ for freedom, yeah we ain’t lettin’ up / I’m a god fearing soldier, I keep my weapons up / Can’t put no needle in my arm ‘cause I’m a pure blood.”)
Bisignano herself makes a couple of appearances in the music video. On the livestream of the event, she speaks to the crowd and tearfully proclaims Ashli Babbitt “a fallen hero,” rails against the “one world agenda,” and offers a rambling summary of the testimony she had proffered in court earlier that day. Later in the night, she talks on speakerphone with Shane Jenkins, a Jan. 6 rioter convicted of smashing a window with a tomahawk and throwing objects like a desk drawer at Capitol Police.
All of this, it goes without saying, violated her pretrial release agreement — a fact Bisignano herself is caught acknowledging on camera. “I’m on pretrial, I’m not supposed to be here,” she tells another attendee, skewer of meat in hand.
“My family’s angry at me because I hang out with January 6 people and I’m on pretrial,” she adds, apparently admitting to more pretrial violations.
“All the other January 6 people do, too,” the attendee responds sympathetically.
Ultimately, Bisignano paid a price for attending the rally, though not a particularly steep one: Judge Nichols reinstated Bisignano’s house arrest, limiting her to her Beverly Hills condominium except for work, church, and doctor’s appointments.
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