BOSTON (AP) – There’s little doubt the Oath Keepers were up to something on January 6. The question at the heart of the criminal case against its members and associates in the attack on the United States Capitol is: What exactly were they up to? to do?
Authorities suggested for weeks in court hearings and documents that members of the far-right militia planned their attack in advance in an effort to block the peaceful transition of power. But prosecutors have since said it is unclear if the group was targeting the Capitol before Jan.6.
“The plan was to illegally stop the Electoral College’s certification of the vote … and the plan was to be prepared to use violence if necessary,” Assistant United States Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy said during a hearing this month. But the Oath Keepers “did not know precisely how force and violence might be necessary to support this plan,” he said.
Authorities are still sifting through a sea of evidence in what they say is probably the most complex investigation ever processed by the Justice Department. More than 300 people face federal charges and more are expected. The most serious charges they have come forward against 10 individuals described as members and associates of the Oath Keepers and various members of another far-right group, the Proud Boys.
But as the extensive investigation unfolded, prosecutors have at times struggled to maintain a coherent narrative and have had to retract statements made in court hearings or in documents. It has created an opening for defense attorneys to try to cast doubt on the case.
“The government put forward a theory (without evidence) that there was a week-long plan to invade the Capitol,” wrote an attorney for one of the Oath Keepers, Jessica Watkins, in a recent court filing. “There was no such plan.”
In one case, prosecutors declared in court documents in January that there was “strong evidence” that the pro-Trump mob aimed to “capture and assassinate elected officials.” The Justice Department quickly clarified that it had no such evidence., blaming it on a lack of communication between prosecutors.
After being pressured by a judge in a recent hearing, Rakoczy admitted that the authorities “do not have at this time someone who explicitly says ‘our plan is to force entry to the Capitol to stop the certification'”, but warned that the investigation is on going.
“Part of the reason there wasn’t necessarily a plan as concrete as one might hope is that they were waiting and watching to see what the leadership did,” he said.
Just a month earlier, Rakoczy told the same judge that there is no other way to read the group’s messages about the stationing of a “rapid reaction force” outside the city other than that they needed available weapons “in case the activities at the Capitol were bad. “
“And those activities on Capitol Hill were a planned and very well coordinated attack on the United States Capitol,” he said.
Defense attorneys argue that the discussions their clients had prior to January 6 concerned providing security at the rally before the riot or guarding against possible attacks by antifa activists.
The defendants can still be convicted of conspiring to obstruct Congress even if the plan was formulated just moments before they stormed the Capitol, said Jimmy Gurule, a former federal prosecutor who is now a professor at the University of California law school. Notre Dame. And prosecutors have some “pretty compelling circumstantial evidence,” he said.
The communications detailed in the court documents show the group discussing things like equipment and training in the weeks leading up to January 6. One man suggested taking a boat to transport weapons across the Potomac River to his “waiting arms,” authorities say.
In December, Kelly Meggs, who authorities said was the leader of the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers, wrote in a message that he had “organized an alliance” with the Proud Boys.. Days before January 6, Meggs ordered someone to tell her friend “this is not a rally,” authorities say.
Many came dressed for battle on January 6 in tactical vests and helmets. The leader of the Oath Keepers, who has not been charged, communicated with some of the defendants through a Signal chat called “DC OP: 6 Jan 21″, which prosecutors say shows that the group was ” activating a plan to use force on January 1. 6. ”
Authorities wrote in court documents that the group not only conspired to “forcibly storm the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, but planned their attack in advance.” The evidence is “irrefutable,” prosecutors wrote in another document, that Watkins “recruited others to join, train, plan and participate in a coordinated effort to, as she put it, ‘break into the Capitol. ‘”
US District Judge Amit Mehta agreed in February to keep Thomas Caldwell, whom authorities have portrayed as the leader of the conspiracy, locked up while awaiting trial, and said the evidence showed that he “engaged in the planning and communications with others … to plan a potential military raid on Capitol Hill on January 6. ”
But after Caldwell’s attorney challenged that assessment, the judge reversed his decision and released Caldwell to home confinement. Mehta said there is no evidence that he entered the Capitol on January 6 or that he had been conspiring to do so.
“The last time we were here 30 days ago, I was convinced it was a plan to run a raid on the Capitol building,” the judge told Caldwell’s attorney. “He has presented some evidence that, I think, refutes that notion.”
Since then, the judge has released other defendants, noting that there is no evidence that they assaulted anyone on Capitol Hill or, in some cases, they do not appear to be as involved in planning before January 6.
But Mehta ordered Meggs to remain locked up on Friday, calling him a danger to the community. The judge said his communications in the weeks leading up to the attack show that he was planning violence on the streets of Washington, even if none specifically mentions a plot to storm the Capitol.
Prosecutors also apparently have not been able to get on the same page about what to say to the press.
A judge recently reprimanded the Justice Department for a “60-minute” interview during which the prosecutor leading the investigation suggested that some of the rioters could face charges of sedition. The interview of former acting US District Attorney Michael Sherwin appeared to violate Justice Department rules and Sherwin is now under internal investigation, a prosecutor told the judge.