The Justice Department is preparing some of the first guilty plea offers for people charged in the Capitol insurrection, as prosecutors grind through massive amounts of evidence, videos and tips against more than 400 possible defendants in an investigation called one of the “largest in American history.”
Department officials are working on the timing of potential plea deals. Internal discussions will likely be influenced by the arrival of Attorney General Merrick Garland — who got his first briefing about the investigation on Thursday — and other senior aides who are coming onboard as part of the Biden administration.
“Based on the information we received from supervisors, it sounds like things are moving along. I hope to have plea offers for these parties soon,” Assistant US Attorney Amanda Fretto said at a hearing Friday in Washington, DC, for two Texans charged in the Capitol attack.
“That could happen within a few weeks,” Fretto added, the first time a prosecutor gave a possible timeline for plea bargains in open court.
More than 300 people have been charged in connection with the January 6 assault on the US Capitol by pro-Trump rioters — a figure DOJ now says could easily pass 400. Charges are also likely coming against additional members of the Oath Keepers, building on the existing conspiracy case that already has nine defendants, prosecutors said Thursday in court.
There haven’t been any guilty pleas, though legal experts believe many defendants will ultimately take a deal instead of opting for a costly and challenging federal trial. For those that choose to go to trial, backlogs in the courts and the sheer logistics of the sprawling investigation likely mean court trials may be 12 to 15 months away, people briefed on the probe told CNN.
‘Most complex investigation ever’
The Justice Department is calling the investigation one of the “largest in American history,” and it has been a drain on department and FBI resources.
That process is taking time, prosecutors acknowledged, and DOJ has asked for delays in several cases as investigators deal with the overwhelming workload. Prosecutors specifically asked for two-month delays in some cases, according to new court filings.
“The investigation and prosecution of the Capitol Attack will likely be one of the largest in American history, both in terms of the number of defendants prosecuted and the nature and volume of the evidence,” Justice Department lawyers wrote in the new filings on Friday.
The attack, they added, is “likely the most complex investigation ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice,” citing the overwhelming workload for prosecutors and FBI agents.
Investigators have mountains of evidence. They say they’re reviewing more than 15,000 hours of surveillance tapes and police body camera footage, about 1,600 electronic devices, and have conducted “hundreds” of searches of electronic communications like emails and text messages.
More than 900 search warrants have been executed in almost every state, prosecutors said.
The public is continuing to heed the government’s call for assistance in identifying suspects, which has proven critical in many cases. Authorities say they’ve received more than 210,000 tips and have already generated 80,000 reports from interviewing witnesses and suspects.
Prosecutors said at court hearings this week the DOJ is hiring an outside vendor to build a database of all the materials, which include an overwhelming number of video clips from Capitol grounds.
DOJ brings in reinforcements
More than a dozen federal prosecutors from around the country have been sent to Washington to assist in the effort, which is being led by the US attorney’s office in DC.
Several DC-based prosecutors have also started moving their regular cases back, but 15 are expected to continue working the more complex conspiracy cases which could take months of work.
The vast majority of known Capitol insurrection cases are against individual rioters. But prosecutors have filed conspiracy charges against family members of those who went to the Capitol and against members of far-right extremist groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys.
These conspiracy investigations are continuing and “involves a large number of participants,” the Justice Department said Friday in court papers.
Many alleged Capitol rioters have already been arraigned and pleaded not guilty. The next step is the “discovery” process where investigators prepare evidence for trial and share it with defendants.
The Justice Department’s request for a slowdown in some Capitol riot cases is part of a larger struggle over the discovery process.
Defense attorneys for some alleged rioters complained in court that they haven’t been given enough materials to adequately start preparing for trial or for potential plea negotiations. Prosecutors have turned over some documents but have told judges they more time.
Friday’s hearing where Fretto, the prosecutor, outlined the status of potential plea deals involved Jenny Cudd and Eliel Rosa of Midland, Texas. Cudd gained national notoriety last month when she asked for — and received — a judge’s approval to travel to Mexico for a vacation with colleagues. Both have pleaded not guilty to a five-count criminal indictment.
Judge Trevor McFadden set their next hearing for April 29 and said he hoped they could “resolve the case” on that date, mentioning the potential for guilty plea negotiations.