Storytelling that Bridges Deep Divides
A Capitol Case explores how Americans can find and respect their shared humanity after a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol leaves many people unable — or unwilling — to find common ground.
Heather Shaner is at the center of the story. A short, feisty, blue-haired public defender in Washington, D.C., she has spent 40 years representing people who can’t afford a lawyer. Heather is beloved by the thousands of men and women she’s helped rehabilitate with empathy and education.
On January 6, 2021, Heather’s empathy hits a limit when a violent mob supporting outgoing President Donald Trump storms the Capitol to stop the peaceful transfer of power to President-elect Joe Biden. Rioters threaten her hometown — and democracy. She wants nothing to do with the alleged criminals.
Then she gets the call.
The Federal Defenders office asks Heather to represent the rioters. She is forced to reconcile her fear and anger with her belief in the right to a fair trial. She turns down the felons accused of sedition and accepts a caseload of nonviolent offenders. Heather is curious how someone could get radicalized and get swept up in a lie.
She is assigned to represent Jack Griffith of Tennessee and Annie Howell of Pennsylvania. They’re charged with disorderly and disruptive conduct, as well as picketing inside the Capitol. They say they didn’t plan to join an attempted coup, they were just proud to be part of something important — Trump’s “Stop the Steal” movement.
As Heather gets to know her clients, her disdain for the rioters eases. She discovers Jack and Annie were deceived by misinformation and thought they’d joined a righteous defense of democracy, not creeping authoritarianism.
Annie is a single mother whose knack for politicking was crucial to the Trump campaign in Pennsylvania. She says fear drove her to the Capitol on Jan. 6. She was afraid that America was becoming a socialist dystopia, as right-wing media, friends and family had warned her.
Annie’s role in the Trump campaign makes her a person of interest in investigations led by Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith, the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the U.S. House’s January 6th Committee.
She divides her time between a motel room and the library as she fights for custody of her son and tries to rebuild her life. Peering out the motel window at a U-Haul filled with her belongings, Annie says she’s determined to be a better role model for her son than the president she once idolized. Breaking free from the political trance is painful but rewarding. As she sheds toxic relationships, she builds new, healthier ones, including with herself.
Heather’s other client, Jack, is an aspiring musician, video game developer and social media influencer who goes by the pseudonym “Liberty Dragon.” He has a gentle demeanor in person, but online, Jack spouted incendiary conspiracy theories and far-right rhetoric in the lead up to the Jan. 6 attack.
He expresses remorse in court, and Heather is determined to keep him from repeating his mistakes as Trump vows to run again. But as time passes and distance grows between them, Jack’s sincerity is in question.
Heather assigns her clients to read John Lewis’s autobiography and Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” The approach may positively influence the judge’s verdict but, more importantly, it could help her clients learn about lives different from their own but facing similar human struggles.
Heather receives death threats and criticism for her approach to the Jan. 6 defendants. Liberals condemn her for sympathizing with “traitors” and “terrorists.” Conservatives accuse her of subjecting her clients to “Soviet-style re-education.”
She’s unmoved by the blowback.
Heather helps Jack get a lenient sentence — three months of home confinement and three years of probation. Yet when the trial is over, Jack retreats to far-right chat rooms and online gaming communities. He returns to the conspiracy theories and hate that got him in trouble. Jack says he still believes the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump and hopes to seize on his Jan. 6 notoriety to sell a Trump first-person shooter video game he’s developing.
Annie is sentenced to sixty days in jail and three year’s probation. Socially ostracized for joining the insurrection, she could take solace in the conservative groups that treat her like a folk hero. Instead, she takes every chance she can to fix her mistakes.
A Capitol Case is a window into the fraught, delicate state of U.S. democracy, the people tearing it apart and those trying to put it back together. When Americans have lost trust in institutions, information and each other, Heather, Jack and Annie show how people with different beliefs can civilly explore personal, political and social truths and find each other’s humanity across the divides.
"Once you can see somebody as a human being, you can listen to them and once you listen to them, you can feel their pain, the remorse, what they want for the future." Heather Shaner A Capitol Case