Capitol Riot Judge Blasts U.S. Over ‘60 Minutes’ Interview
(Bloomberg) -- A federal judge in charge of one of the highest-profile cases stemming from the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot rebuked the Justice Department for discussing its probe in public.
“These defendants are entitled to a fair trial, not one that is conducted in the media,” U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta said at a hastily arranged hearing Tuesday afternoon, after the former top U.S. prosecutor in Washington appeared on the news show “60 Minutes” to comment on the investigation.
“I will not tolerate continued publicity in the media that affects the fair trial rights of these defendants,” Mehta said.
Mehta said he scheduled the unusual hearing to address the “60 Minutes” interview with former U.S. attorney Michael Sherwin as well as a recent story in the New York Times. In the interview, which aired on Sunday, Sherwin said Justice Department prosecutors could soon bring sedition charges against rioters. A day later, the Times, citing anonymous sources, reported that prosecutors were weighing bringing such charges against members of the far-right Oath Keepers.
In response to questions from Mehta on Tuesday, John Crabb, chief of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said the Sherwin interview appeared to have broken internal guidelines about contact with the media. He said the department’s Office of Professional of Responsibility was examining both the interview and the leak to the Times.
Sherwin didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Lawyers representing the accused Oath Keepers expressed outrage over the department’s public statements.
“My client is extremely concerned,” David Fischer, who is representing defendant Thomas Caldwell, said at the hearing. “He has borne the brunt of the adverse media coverage.”
The apparent internal breakdown at the Justice Department comes as prosecutors orchestrate one of the largest criminal investigations in U.S. history, a multi-state dragnet that has generated hundreds of charges.
The sheer scope of the investigation has already led to a few procedural hiccups. In January, a federal prosecutor in Arizona claimed in court that some rioters had made plans to “capture and assassinate” elected officials. After the comment made headlines, Sherwin cautioned reporters that the U.S. had found no evidence of such plans and warned of a “disconnect” between U.S. prosecutors in different jurisdictions.
The prosecutor in Arizona later asked the judge to strike the assassination claim from the court record.
In press conferences after the riot, Sherwin, who oversaw the initial stages of the investigation, discussed the prospect of sedition charges for some of the rioters. He revisited that possibility in the “60 Minutes” interview.
“I believe the facts do support those charges,” he said. “And I think that, as we go forward, more facts will support that.”
Sherwin stepped down as acting U.S. attorney this month and was replaced by Channing Phillips, a veteran prosecutor in Washington.
Tuesday’s hearing came in one of the largest cases to emerge from the riot. The government has accused 10 Oath Keepers of working together to break into the Capitol, alleging that they communicated extensively in advance of the siege and gathered paramilitary gear used during the riot.
The U.S. has charged more than 300 people with a range of crimes in the wake of the riot, from trespassing to assault. Recently the investigation has shifted to focus on members of the right-wing groups that allegedly plotted the act. A charge of sedition carries a sentence as long as 20 years.
The case is U.S. v. Caldwell et al., 21-cr-28, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).
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