WASHINGTON — U.S. District Judge Jia M. Cobb on Friday asked a federal prosecutor to explain the Justice Department's handling of a misdemeanor case against a Jan. 6 defendant who admitted that he "scuffled" with officers inside the Capitol, including an officer who later died by suicide.
David Walls-Kaufman, a Washington, D.C., resident, was supposed to be sentenced on Friday, but Cobb delayed imposing the sentence after receiving information from the officer's family. The family is pursuing a civil suit that accuses Walls-Kaufman of assault and playing a role in the death of Jeffrey Smith, a Metropolitan Police Department officer who died by suicide following the Jan. 6 attack. Cobb, on Friday, asked the department for their view of the evidence of the alleged assault, noting he was only charged with a misdemeanor.
Walls-Kaufman, who lived just blocks away from the U.S. Capitol and told investigators he previously worked for a congressional committee, was arrested in June 2022 and charged with four counts. His arrest came after he was identified by the "Sedition Hunters," online sleuths who have poured over evidence of the Jan. 6 attack, and after Walls-Kaufman was sued by Smith's widow.
Officer Smith's body-worn camera footage, which was released because of the civil suit, appeared to confirm that Walls-Kaufman grabbed Smith's baton during a scuffle on Jan. 6, and that Smith appeared shaken up afterward. The footage also showed that, later in the night, Smith was separately struck by a flying metal object that an unknown person threw at the police line as police attempted to clear the western front of the U.S. Capitol.
Smith’s widow said that the late officer was a different person when he returned from duty after Jan. 6. He sought medical attention that night, but the police and fire clinic was overwhelmed, dealing with dozens of officers who suffered injuries that day. He died by suicide the day he returned to duty. Last March, the D.C. Police and Firefighters’ Retirement and Relief Board found that the injuries that Smith sustained on Jan. 6 were “the sole and direct cause,” declaring his death to be in the line of duty.
In January, Walls-Kaufman pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of "parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building," admitting in his agreed-upon statement of offense that he entered the Capitol through the rotunda doors on the east side of the building "shortly after they were first breached" and made his way into the office of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. There, prosecutors say video shows him disabling the lock on the top of a double door, allowing more rioters to flow in-and-out of the room where Pelosi took conference calls. Walls-Kaufman, prosecutors say, snapped a photo of a laptop that Pelosi used for her Zoom calls shortly before another rioter grabbed it.
Walls-Kaufman soon headed over to the House chamber, where Ashli Babbitt was fatally shot as she jumped through a broken window leading into the Speaker's Lobby off the floor of the House, as lawmakers evacuated. Walls-Kaufman admitted that he "scuffled with officers" and was forced out of the Capitol at around 2:57 p.m., about a half-hour after he entered the building.
Justice Department prosecutors sought 60 days of incarceration for Walls-Kaufman, saying that he "minimized his conduct" and even claimed "that he had gone into the Capitol to assist an elderly woman and man," a story that prosecutors called a "fanciful tale."
They wrote that Walls-Kaufman was "slow to acknowledge and obey police officers’ commands to leave the building" and told one of the officers, “Get your f---ing hand off of me.” They said that Walls-Kaufman remained on Capitol grounds for hours, until at least 5:37 p.m., when he was ordered to leave.
"Walls-Kaufman also described holding a position as a 'gopher' at Congress’s Joint Economic Committee in 1980 or 1981, and as such he stated he was familiar with the Capitol, and merely walked around to find a way to get out, a claim belied by his thirty minutes inside the Capitol," they wrote. During his FBI interview, they said, Walls-Kaufman "extensively discussed misinformation about the 2020 election being 'stolen.'"
Smith's family, and many online sleuths, believe Walls-Kaufman's conduct warrants more serious charges than a misdemeanor "parading" count. Smith's widow Erin Smith, in a letter to Judge Cobb, wrote that Walls-Kaufman "should be sentenced to spend the maximum amount of time in jail," writing that Walls-Kaufman should have known about the rules about entering federal buildings as a D.C. resident.
"The scuffle between Walls-Kaufman and my husband can be viewed on Jeffrey’s body-worn camera in addition to the record of injuries received during the altercation, which include fractures to his face and sub-orbital cavities, as well the traumatic brain injuries and concussion, all referenced by Dr. Arden," Erin Smith wrote. "When the body camera video is slowed to a frame-by-frame view, Walls-Kaufman struck Jeffrey at least twice in the face with his own baton, after gaining control of it in the Capitol. Walls-Kaufman is a trained martial artist and used his training for malicious conduct that day when he came into contact with police."
Erin Smith wrote that Walls-Kaufman chose to “physically engage with police officers including my husband after trespassing a federal building and using his trained martial arts skills for evil.”
Judge Cobb, after receiving Erin Smith's letter, wanted to hear more about the allegations and decided not to sentence Walls-Kaufman on Friday until she heard additional argument.
“The case seems a bit different than the case that I thought I was preceding over when I took the plea,” Judge Cobb said in court Friday. “There’s a big difference between a scuffle ... and an allegation of someone using a baton to strike an officer.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Kiok said in court Friday that the government believed that "there was physical contact" between Jeffrey Smith and Walls-Kaufman, but said that they did not believe there was sufficient evidence to sustain an assault conviction and that calling it a scuffle was a "deliberately chosen word."
Kiok said the incident took place during a "very tense situation" and that Walls-Kaufman's actions did not "rise to the level" of an assault charge, and that it was not the government’s position that Smith was struck by the baton in Walls-Kaufman's hands.
Judge Cobb said her role was to "search for the truth," and she noted that she went through the video frame by frame. "I do see [Walls-Kaufman's] hands on the baton," Cobb said."I do see Officer Smith fall forward."
Attorney Hughie Hunt, who is representing Walls-Kaufman in his civil case, called the proceeding "sentencing by ambush" and objected to allowing either Erin Smith or Jeffrey Smith's father, Richard, to address the court, saying that they were trying to advance a lawsuit in a criminal case.
"What they're trying to do is pursue their civil case at a sentencing hearing," Hunt said.
Kiok said that the family should be allowed to speak before the court, and noted that Jeffrey Smith would be allowed to speak, were he still alive.
"There are people who loved Jeffrey Smith, and they were affected by his passing," Kiok said, noting that the story of what happened to the officer went beyond Walls-Kaufman.
Judge Cobb said it was a "unique situation" and noted that she could examine the video evidence herself and try to determine what took place and if that should factor into his sentencing.
"I just want to know, factually, did Mr. Kaufman hit anyone," she said, noting that there's "a lot of range in terms of what the ultimate sentence will be," from probation to six months in prison.
She set another hearing for May 19, apologizing to the Smith family for the delay, but saying she was inclined to allow Jeffrey Smith's family members to speak at the next hearing.