The prosecutions of defendants from the U.S. Capitol insurrection are flooding the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, threatening to slow the processing of cases and stretching the resources and public defenders in the court system.
Court records obtained by News4 show the federal courthouse, which sits just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, has already processed nearly as many criminal defendants in the first three months of 2021 as it did in all of 2020.
In a series of court filings, prosecutors have also indicated the cases involving accused Capitol insurrectionists could be uniquely lengthy and complicated. In one filing in the case of a group of 10 accused members of the far-right Oath Keepers organization, the Justice Department said the investigations are large in “size and scope.”
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The filing said, “Indeed, given the government has already obtained more than 15,000 hours of surveillance and body-worn camera footage from multiple law enforcement agencies, merely identifying and producing the footage showing only ten defendants … over a period of a few hours is itself a difficult task.
In other Capitol riot cases, prosecutors have said the Justice Department is also reviewing more than 1,600 electronic devices and working through more than 210,000 tips from the public. Prosecutors have been seeking extensions of deadlines and timetables from judges for processing the criminal cases due to the growing volume of video and evidence they must review.
“They normally don’t get this many tips and so much body camera video,” said Seamus Hughes, a researcher on extremist organizations at George Washington University.
“Everyone threw as much information at the FBI as humanly possible, and they have to go through all that,” Hughes said.
According to court records obtained by News4, the D.C. federal court had processed 266 criminal cases in the first three months of 2021. The records showed that’s nearly as many as the court handled in all of 2020, when it processed 283 cases.
“You’ve got more than a year’s worth of cases going through the court in one chunk,” said David Benowitz, a defense attorney who regularly handles federal criminal cases.
Benowitz said the court and attorneys likely will make adjustments to ensure cases are heard promptly but said defendants who seek trials could experience very long waits.
Benowitz said any delays in the processing of cases could be painful for defendants who are being held in pretrial detention in the D.C. jail or other nearby lockups.
“They’re held without bond, and that in and of itself is a horrific experience,” he said. “We’re still in a pandemic, where not everyone is vaccinated inside the facility.”
News4 learned the nine federal public defenders in the Washington, D.C., federal court system are managing a caseload of nearly 100 Capitol riot cases. One of the attorneys handling riot cases told News4 the public defenders are receiving some outside assistance from public defenders and private attorneys from elsewhere in the nation, but the attorney warned resources are limited.
News4’s review of D.C. federal court calendars shows nearly a dozen U.S. Capitol insurrection hearings have been conducted each day over the past few weeks. Those hearings are being conducted virtually, via telephone or videoconference, due to COVID-19 courthouse restrictions
Multiple attorneys said the processing of cases will grow complicated, if and when defendants seek to have jury trials, because public access remains limited in federal courthouses.