California dispatch: in court for the sentencing of the man who attacked former US House Speaker’s husband after failed kidnapping attempt Dispatches
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California dispatch: in court for the sentencing of the man who attacked former US House Speaker’s husband after failed kidnapping attempt

It’s not every day that one gets a front-row seat to witness the justice system’s workings in a high-profile case. I was fortunate enough to be at the US District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco earlier today for the sentencing of the man who on October 28, 2023, broke into the home of former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and viciously assaulted her husband with a hammer, fracturing his skull. The case was United States vs. David Wayne DePape. I made sure to arrive early at court to secure a good spot. Although cameras were not allowed in the courtroom, numerous media outlets were outside the building, their lenses poised and ready for a press conference. The sentencing kicked off promptly at 10 am, with a visibly gaunt and disheveled DePape being escorted into the courtroom as he was later sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.

DePape was charged in October, shortly after the attack, and he was convicted in November for attempted kidnapping of a federal officer and assault on an immediate family member of a federal official. DePape pled not guilty for the attack. While he admitted on the witness stand during the trial that he had carried out the attack, DePape testified that his break-in at the Pelosi’s Pacific Heights home was intended to kidnap then-Speaker Pelosi, who was second in line to the presidency at the time, and question her about an alleged corrupt conspiracy she and other notable liberal figures were purportedly leading.

Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley began sentencing proceedings by emphasizing the day’s objective: determining an appropriate sentence considering DePape’s history and background.  

Judge Corley invited Christine Pelosi, daughter of Nancy and Paul Pelosi, to read the victim impact statements from her parents, which detailed the attack’s effects on their family. Paul Pelosi’s statement emphasized that DePape had the opportunity to leave after breaking into the house and discovering that Speaker Pelosi was not home but instead chose to hold him hostage. His statement also described his daily struggles with headaches, challenges in performing everyday tasks, and the blood stains still on the front door where he was assaulted, evidence of the assault that left him lying in a pool of his own blood on that fateful day. Nancy Pelosi’s statement echoed similarly as she noted that “our home remains a heartbreaking crime scene” and reiterated that “A violent man broke into our home, threatened to kidnap me and — in his own words — made my husband Paul ‘take the punishment’ in my absence with a near-fatal attack with a hammer.” Her statement also emphasized that DePape’s break-in and assault would prompt other public officials and aspiring politicians to reconsider the safety of their families.

Prosecutors then argued that the “raw violence” described in the statements speaks for itself. They asked the judge for DePape to be given a 40-year sentence. They labeled the defendant as a “domestic terrorist,” saying his “actions were an attack themselves on democracy and our institutions.” This case, they argued, stands apart from the January 6 cases due to the deliberate intent to inflict physical harm. The defendant had chillingly admitted to police that he would have broken “Nancy’s” kneecaps had she lied to him during the assault. He also faces a threat to the community, as he expressed regret over not being “better prepared” for the assault and lamented his failure to target more individuals, as he said in a phone call to KTVU, a local news station. Prosecutors described him as a “smart man,” suggesting that his actions were not the result of naïveté but rather a deliberate engagement with extremist ideologies. They painted a picture of a dangerous individual whose premeditated actions and regrets about not causing greater harm reflect a significant threat to public safety and democratic institutions

DePape’s counsel asked for a 14-year sentence, calling it a “substantial sentence” and said DePape was “taking it seriously.” Counsel highlighted David DePape’s clean criminal record and personal circumstances leading up to the attack on Speaker Pelosi’s husband. They pointed out that DePape was particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theories during a low point in his life, influenced by figures in positions of power who propagated these ideas. The defense urged the court to consider these broader contexts, noting DePape’s renewed connection with his family, from whom he had been estranged before the incident. Counsel attempted to present DePape in a more sympathetic light, suggesting that his actions were influenced by his vulnerable state and external manipulations, and argued that a 14-year sentence was “not a slap on the wrist.” 

The moment then arrived for the judge to deliver the sentence based on the factors laid out in 18 U.S. Code § 3553, and a hush fell on the packed gallery as reporters listened intently for the sentence. As Judge Corley balanced DePape’s lack of criminal history or making threats, vulnerability to “baseless conspiracy theories,” and a letter from the DePape family stressing how the attack was so unexpected of DePape, she said she “must also ensure the sentence still promoted the rule of law.” 

Judge Corley stressed three critical points underpinning her decision for the 30-year sentence. First, she expressed serious concerns about DePape’s threat to public safety, referencing a phone call to KTVU TV in which he expressed regret that he “didn’t get more of them.” In this statement, Judge Corley noted, DePape was “taunting” America, which shows he is a present danger to all Americans. Secondly, the judge pointed out DePape’s decisive actions during the incident. When he discovered Speaker Pelosi, his intended target, was not at home, he chose not to leave. Instead, fully aware that he was being filmed by police body-worn camera, he attacked Paul Pelosi with a hammer “with full force,” a fact DePape chillingly confirmed during his trial testimony.

Lastly, Judge Corley highlighted the broader implications of DePape’s actions for American public service. She drew an important comparison to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, a historical moment that underscored the inherent risks public officials and their families face. While attacks on public officials in the past have been in public, DePape chose to break into the Pelosi residence and assault a family member of a public official, which was, in the judge’s words, “unprecedented.” She stated that this act forces every public servant to reconsider the personal costs of entering public service and question whether putting their family’s safety at risk is worth the sacrifice.

As I sat in the front row, the impact of the proceeding resonated beyond the courtroom. The judge’s words underscored the need to uphold the rule of law and protect the values of civility and respect in our political interactions. 

Today’s sentence sought justice for the victims and served as a stark reminder of the importance of upholding the rule of law in the face of threats to democracy and public safety. Political discourse, no matter how polarizing, should never escalate into violence.