By Joseph M. Hanneman
A Jan. 6 defendant from Pennsylvania originally charged with felonies including assaulting police at the U.S. Capitol and civil disorder was given a secret plea deal and served his entire prison term without details being recorded on a public court docket.
Samuel Lazar, 37, of Ephrata, Pa., was arrested by the FBI on July 26, 2021, and later charged in a superseding indictment (pdf) with assaulting, resisting or impeding certain officers, civil disorder, entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds with a deadly or dangerous weapon, engaging in physical violence in a restricted building or grounds with a deadly or dangerous weapon, and an act of physical violence in the Capitol grounds or buildings.
Mr. Lazar was ordered detained until trial despite his numerous requests for reconsideration.
On March 8, 2022, Mr. Lazar accepted a deal from prosecutors and pleaded guilty to one felony: assaulting, resisting, or impeding certain officers and aiding and abetting. The plea deal included language that Mr. Lazar would assist federal authorities with the ongoing Jan. 6 investigation, according to a case status report (pdf) filed on Oct. 2.
United States District Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced Mr. Lazar to 30 months in prison on March 17, 2023, in a sealed hearing. He was given credit for time served and released from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons on Sept. 13.
On Sept. 29, the Press Coalition—which includes The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and several other media outlets—filed a renewed motion (pdf) for access to all sealed or otherwise un-docketed records in the case, including any change of plea, sentencing memoranda, and a transcript of the sentencing hearing. Judge Jackson denied a similar motion in May.
The judge said the prosecution and defense have approved unsealing the records now that Mr. Lazar is out of prison. The Department of Justice asked for 30 days to redact sensitive portions of the paperwork in the sealed case, the status update said.
The Press Coalition motion on April 23 came in the wake of national and local news reports that Mr. Lazar was sentenced in March 2023 based on a plea agreement. There was no notation of it on the public court docket, nor was there an indication that any hearings or documents were sealed by the court.
According to the Oct. 2 status report, there is another case number (22-cr-071) and docket under seal that contains the information missing from the original public docket (21-cr-00525).
Mr. Lazar was accused of deploying a can of pepper spray on the police line on the Capitol’s west plaza and trying to pull down metal barriers just after 1 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2021.
A video from later that afternoon showed Mr. Lazar recounting what happened with police officers at the barricades.
“They maced us, those tyrannical pieces of [expletive], and we maced them right the [expletive] back, and now they’re taking the building,” he said, according to the FBI’s statement of facts (pdf) in the case.
“They attacked the people,” Mr. Lazar continued. “We have a right to defend ourselves. [Expletive] the tyrants. There’s a time for peace, and there’s a time for war.”
The case docket appeared normal for a Jan. 6 case, with the Press Coalition being given access to early government video exhibits.
Gap in Case Docket
The docket, however, went quiet after June 13, 2022, when Judge Jackson canceled the status hearing set for that day with no replacement date scheduled.
There was not another public docket entry until March 9, 2023, with the assignment of a new prosecutor to the case.
The DOJ requires Jan. 6 defendants who accept plea agreements to cooperate with the FBI and federal prosecutors in the ongoing Jan. 6 investigation.
Eight Oath Keepers-related defendants who took plea deals had their sentencing hearings delayed up to 15 months because they were assisting the FBI.
The Lazar case could be the first, however, where the change of plea and the sentencing were kept secret under court seal for months.
“The Supreme Court has sketched a two-stage process for resolving whether the First Amendment affords the public access to a particular judicial record or proceeding,” wrote Charles D. Tobin, attorney for the Press Coalition.
“First, the court must determine whether a qualified First Amendment right of public access exists. If so, then . . . the record or proceeding may be closed only if closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest,” wrote Mr. Tobin, citing the 2017 case Dhiab v. Trump.
“The public docket contains no argument by the parties or finding by the court that the withholding of the sealed judicial records is essential to preserve any higher values,” Mr. Tobin wrote. “Nor are there any public findings that narrowly targeted redactions would not sufficiently protect any such interest.”
In a supplemental filing on May 15, the Press Coalition included a printout from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons showing that Mr. Lazar was being held at the Federal Correction Institution in Fort Dix, N.J. The document said he was scheduled for release on Sept. 13.
Judge Jackson denied the Press Coalition motion on May 19 and told the parties to file an update in the case by Sept. 29.
Bureau of Prisons online records (pdf) show that Mr. Lazar was indeed released from custody on Sept. 13.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.