The Suicide of a January 6 Defendant: ‘They Broke Him’

Matthew Perna did nothing wrong on January 6, 2021.

The Pennsylvania man walked through an open door on the Senate side of the building shortly before 3 p.m. that afternoon. Capitol police, shown in surveillance video, stood by as hundreds of Americans entered the Capitol. Wearing a “Make America Great Again” sweatshirt, Perna, 37, left after about 20 minutes.

Less than two weeks later, Perna was ensnared in what the former top U.S. prosecutor called a “shock and awe” campaign to round up Trump supporters and deter them from demonstrating at Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021. After he discovered his image on the FBI’s most wanted list for January 6, Perna immediately contacted his local FBI office and voluntarily submitted to questioning; on January 18, six FBI agents arrested Perna at his home.

His life from that point turned into a nightmare. Perna was indicted by a grand jury in February 2021 on four counts including obstruction of an official proceeding and trespassing misdemeanors. Despite his nonviolent participation in the events of that day—he did not assault anyone, carry a weapon, or vandalize property—Biden’s Justice Department and local news media nonetheless made his life pure hell.

Whenever his hometown paper, the Sharon Herald, published an article on its social media account about Perna, the majority of replies were “horrible and brutal,” his aunt, Geri Perna, told me on the phone Sunday. After more than a year of legal and public torture, Perna saw no way out.

On Friday night, Matthew Perna hung himself in his garage.

“They broke him, they mentally broke him,” Geri said through racking sobs as she explained why her loved one ended his life. “He had run out of hope. I know he couldn’t take it any more.”

In December, at the behest of his defense attorney, Perna agreed to plead guilty to all four counts. With no criminal record and no violent conduct on January 6, Perna and his family expected a prison sentence of less than a year; Perna’s sentencing hearing was scheduled for March 3, the seven-year anniversary of his mother’s death.

But Matthew Graves, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia handling every January 6 prosecution, intervened and asked the court to delay Perna’s sentencing so his office could make sure Capitol defendants are punished equally. “While every case and every defendant are different, the Government is attempting to ensure that similarly situated January 6 defendants are treated in the same manner,” Graves wrote in a motion on February 11. “The Government is attempting to do that in this case and that requires additional time for the Government’s internal review process to be completed.”

This was very bad news for Perna. Graves’ office has sought lengthy prison terms for defendants who plead guilty to the obstruction felony. In the case of Jacob Chansley, who, like Perna, committed no violent act on January 6 and was allowed into the building by police, Biden’s Justice Department sought 51 months in jail and three years probation. (Judge Royce Lamberth sentenced him to 41 months.)

In sentencing recommendations on obstruction pleas, prosecutors have compared defendants to domestic terrorists and asked judges to act accordingly. “The need to deter others is especially strong in cases involving domestic terrorism, which the breach of the Capitol certainly was,” one of Graves’ prosecutors wrote in Chansley’s sentencing memo. “The sentence of this Court must drive home this fact for this defendant, and any others who may wish to emulate him: crimes committed against this country and democracy will be prosecuted and punished in accordance with the law.”

That appears to be what Graves would have demanded in Perna’s case as well.

When Perna learned his sentencing hearing was again delayed, he called his aunt. “‘I am guilty, I am guilty!” he told her. “He said that he deserved whatever punishment they were going to give him. That was the last straw. The constant harassment was too much.”

Perna is at least the second known suicide of a January 6 defendant and in September, another defendant, John Anderson, died unexpectedly. His attorney, Marina Medvin, condemned the Justice Department’s false case against her client and in a statement said he “died a wrongly accused man who maintained his innocence to his last day.”

Perna’s aunt told me that Matthew graduated at the top of his class at Penn State University and traveled the world teaching children in southeast Asia how to speak English. After his mother’s death—she died suddenly from a hospital mishap after fully recovering from a bout of leukemia—Perna became disillusioned with the healthcare industry and interested in more holistic remedies. At the time of his arrest, Perna was doing well as a CBD distributor with clients in many countries.

All of that changed after January 6.

“We lost many friendships after the news was plastered all over the local newspapers,” his father, Larry, wrote to Judge John Bates seeking leniency for his son. “We were no longer comfortable going out in public, something I never in my life thought I would experience in the town where our family was respected and well known. This past year cost Matthew his income, the love of his life, his friendships, and his standing in the community. He will never be the same, and I ask that you take all of this into consideration before sentencing him.”

But that sort of isolation clearly isn’t enough to satisfy Biden’s Justice Department as it continues to seek revenge against Americans who protested Joe Biden’s election on January 6. Federal prosecutors want jail time even for those charged with low-level misdemeanors such as “parading” at the Capitol. (Perna’s original indictment still includes the lie that Kamala Harris was in the building during the protest that day, the basis for thousands of criminal charges. It is unclear whether his lawyer notified the court about the falsehood before accepting the plea offer.)

Desperate for help, Perna and his family reached out to numerous political leaders including Donald Trump. On Christmas Day, Geri told me, Matthew went to Mar A Lago and attempted to get a letter to the former president to explain his plight. He did not succeed in getting the letter to Trump.

“I want Trump and everyone to know Matt’s name,” Geri told me. Her nephew was a longtime backer of Bernie Sanders before he became a Trump supporter. “We are so angry and upset. Someone has to pay for this.”

But will anyone? In a fair world, local reporters, Matthew Graves and his prosecutors, Judge John Bates and anyone involved in this abusive prosecution would re-evaluate the human cost of what they’re doing and hang their heads in shame. Thousands of lives destroyed—for what? To sooth the fragile ego of Joe Biden and quench the insatiable lust for revenge by the Democratic Party? To notch legal victories to advance Beltway careers? To create clickbait headlines?

But these people have no shame—so no moment of reflection can be expected.

After we spoke Sunday, Geri and Larry headed to the funeral home to make arrangements for Matt. “I miss my son,” Larry told me, his voice breaking. “This leaves a giant hole in my heart. I don’t know how I will get through this. He was a good person, so kind and considerate. He couldn’t harm a flea.”

Matthew Perna was failed by the country he loved, demonized by the news media, tormented by the world’s most powerful law enforcement, ignored by political leaders of both parties, and betrayed by a federal judge sworn to defend justice not appease the whims of a vengeful regime.

They all have blood on their hands now.

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