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The judge overseeing the sprawling case of the Oath Keepers who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 raised acute concerns Thursday about the pace of the government’s effort to bring the matter to trial, particularly as three of the defendants sit in D.C. jail.
Washington D.C. federal District Court Judge Amit Mehta sounded the alarm Thursday after prosecutors said they didn’t believe a scheduled Jan. 31 trial date for a subset of the Oath Keepers would be sustainable, as evidence related to the Capitol breach continues to pour in faster than the government can process it.
“It does really feel like Jan. 31 is becoming ever more unrealistic,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy.
Mehta emphasized that his concerns were largely about the three Oath Keepers — Jessica Watkins, Kelly Meggs and Kenneth Harrelson — who have already been detained for months and face the prospect of a much longer detention.
“I am concerned about a lengthy pretrial detention period,” Mehta said, adding that the Justice Department doesn’t need to turn over every shred of evidence it uncovers before beginning a trial — only those relevant to the specific defendants in the Oath Keepers case.
“Otherwise,” he said, “we won't be having a trial in any of these cases until 2023. I just don't think that's acceptable to those being held.”
Despite his concerns, Mehta appeared ready to relent after hearing from lawyers for the Justice Department and defendants, many of whom said they wanted time to comb through the evidence in their clients’ cases. He noted that he’s been planning to split the case into two separate trials, and urged the parties to pencil in April and July for the start of each.
That timetable would also ensure that one of the highest-profile cases to emerge from the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol generates significant attention in the months leading up to the 2022 congressional elections, when Democrats intend to highlight the breach as an argument against extremism in the Republican Party.
Two of the 18 Oath Keepers charged as part of the conspiracy — Jason Dolan and Graydon Young — have already pleaded guilty, and if others follow suit, it could change the equation.
Still, the episode highlights an increasing tension for the Justice Department as it continues to investigate what it calls the largest and most complex case in the history of the country. Defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial, but they’re also entitled to see all the evidence the government collects that might be exculpatory. With 600 defendants and counting charged in the chaotic mob that stormed Congress, that mountain of evidence grows daily.
Complicating matters even further are the ongoing Covid-related restrictions governing trials in the federal courthouse near the Capitol. Mehta said that the sheer size of the Oath Keepers case, which includes 18 alleged conspirators and may grow even more, would effectively prevent any other trials from commencing as the planned Oath Keepers trials play out — assuming virus-related limits remain in place.
The Oath Keepers case is among the most significant to arise from the Capitol riot. Leaders of the anti-government militia are charged with conspiring to obstruct Congress’ effort to certify Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. About a dozen entered the Capitol in military-style “stack” formation, and Meggs — one of the three detainees — texted associates that he was hunting for Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
More than 80 Capitol riot defendants have already or are scheduled to accept guilty pleas, primarily in lower-level misdemeanor cases as prosecutors begin clearing many of the less complicated cases from the court’s docket. But in more complicated conspiracy cases like those facing the Oath Keepers and members of the Proud Boys leadership, the investigation is still ongoing.
Rakoczy emphasized that counsel for many of the Oath Keeper defendants agrees with the need to delay the trial as they seek to obtain more evidence that could support their case. And defense lawyers backed up her point, saying that they don’t believe they can review and synthesize the evidence in the case in time for a January trial.
Mehta said that if the Justice Department wanted to reconsider its request to detain the three Oath Keeper defendants before trial, it might alleviate the pressure to maintain a quick trial date.