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Justice Department faces increasingly complex investigation into Capitol riots

WASHINGTON – Justice Department officials add prosecutors and agents to their sprawling investigation into the Jan.6 attack on the Capitol as it enters a more complicated phase and they strategize on how to handle the ‘heavy workload, including trying to avoid a potential backlog in the courts, according to law enforcement officials.

Their effort to indict more complex cases was evident on Friday when prosecutors obtained an indictment expanding an existing conspiracy case against right-wing militia group the Oath Keepers, accusing six other suspected members of the group of organizing a military style attack on the Capitol. to help President Donald. J. Trump cancels election results and remains in power.

The investigation has already resulted in charges against more than 230 people and dozens of subpoenas. More than a dozen federal prosecutors from across the country have been assigned to work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, which is leading the investigation, and this could lead to 400 to 500 criminal cases in total, according to a forces official. of the order.

Michael R. Sherwin, the acting U.S. lawyer in Washington who oversaw the investigation, will be stepping down soon. But officials plan to keep him to continue overseeing the investigation from Justice Department headquarters in Washington, according to people familiar with the leadership talks.

The FBI’s Washington field office, which reacted quickly in the days following the attack to handle a voluminous amount of advice, numerical clues and interviews, will see more of this work going to field offices across the country. The office’s Domestic Terrorism Operations Section, which has long overseen the investigation from FBI headquarters, will coordinate this work.

In the weeks following the seat of Congress, the speed of the FBI investigation provided a glimmer of hope that the rioters would be held accountable, as the government grappled with security failures that allowed the pro-Trump mob to rape one of the most fortified. buildings in one of the safest cities in the country.

But the investigation has now reached an inflection point, where the easy cases have mostly been worked out and more complex cases are looming.

Mr Sherwin pointed out the change at a press conference last month, saying the pace of arrests would level off as prosecutors focus on building “the most complex conspiracy cases linked to possible coordination between militias “.

Now federal prosecutors are discussing obtaining guilty pleas from the defendants and trying to get the suspects’ cooperation, according to a law enforcement official.

Major criminal investigations often depend on the intelligence of informants and cooperating witnesses, say current and former prosecutors. But the riot investigation, which was highly unusual in many ways, resulted in hundreds of charges with little cooperation from those involved and based almost entirely on evidence gathered from social media and advice from family members and acquaintances.

To lay more serious charges accusing suspects of organized plots to overturn the elections, the government may need the cooperation of those already swept away by the FBI who might want a lesser sentence.

“Cooperators are the de facto experts on a crime because they are inside a conspiracy,” said Glenn Kirschner, a former Washington prosecutor who focused on homicide and racketeering cases . “They can bring direct evidence to the jury about who was playing what role inside; what was the hierarchy and what was the structure within the organization. “

The Justice Department first accused members of the Oath Keepers last month of plotting to travel to Washington to rape the Capitol, its first major conspiracy case, without cooperation. In the original charges, prosecutors noted that three members of the group could be seen in widely disseminated videos, dressed in paramilitary gear and moving in a coordinated fashion through the chaotic crowd.

On Friday, the department indicted six other people in the plot, including Kelly Meggs, the self-proclaimed leader of the organization’s Florida branch who the indictment said wrote on Facebook: “Gentlemen, we are heading. to DC. ” Another Florida oath keeper, Graydon Young, arranged guns and combat training for himself and others, according to the indictment.

Members of the Oath Keepers who have been charged with conspiracy have so far shown no public sign of their willingness to cooperate. One of them, Thomas E. Caldwell, has sworn to fight the charges in court.

But that can change. This week, Dominic Pezzola, a member of the right-wing extremist nationalist group the Proud Boys, indicated in a court file that he would be prepared to plead guilty and “be forgiven”.

If the Justice Department could secure guilty pleas, it could ease the pressure on federal courts in Washington, which have halted nearly all trials in response to the coronavirus pandemic and face a year-long backlog.

Chief Justice Beryl A. Howell of the Washington District Federal Court, who early in his career worked on Capitol Hill as an assistant to Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, made no effort to hide his disdain for part of the Capitol. suspected cases.

“What happened that day is criminal conduct that is destined to feature in the history books of this country,” she said during proceedings in the Richard “Bigo” case. Barnett, who was seen in photographs with his feet propped up on a desk in President Nancy Pelosi’s office. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges that he illegally entered the Capitol with a dangerous weapon, a cane used as a stun gun.

Judge Howell said the charges failed to “properly grasp the scope of what Mr Barnett is accused of doing here,” and she said the residents “still lived here in Washington, DC, with the consequences of the violence that this accused is. would have participated in. “

Justice Howell also told the National Law Journal that “there is no doubt that in criminal cases where the accused wants a trial, the trials have all been delayed.” But she said the court had “a plan to get started as soon as we resume the trials.” A spokeswoman said details were being worked out.

Although a backlog has built up due to the pandemic, court records show that many criminal cases continued to be dealt with and concluded in video proceedings, as defendants reach plea deals with prosecutors and are doomed.

Even so, Mr. Kirschner predicted that “the court’s roles will be crushed if the Department of Justice does not litigate a whole bunch of these cases,” estimating that the Washington District Federal Court processes about 400 cases per year.

Prosecutors said they expected members of extremist groups to want their case to stand trial so they could use the venue as a platform for their propaganda. But they may not see the time in court soon.

Alan feuer contributed to the New York report, and Adam goldman from Washington.

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