“We’re definitely not at the end of the line in terms of charges,” Matthew M. Graves, who was sworn in as the district’s U.S. attorney on Nov. 5, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “The million dollar question is, how close are we to the end?”
With around 750 people already arrested, he said, “it’s really hard to predict what the final number will be, given that we’re still somewhere in the middle – using that term very broadly – of the phase of investigation”.
In his first detailed remarks to the media since President Biden named him to head the nation’s largest US attorney’s office, Graves touched on several topics during the nearly hour-long interview on Wednesday, including the fight against violent crime in the country. Capital city; the “unprecedented workload” DC prosecutors are carrying due to the pandemic and other factors; credibility issues with the city’s crime lab; and general morale in his office.
Although he declined to discuss specific cases — including the trial of alleged riot participant Guy Wesley Reffitt, which began Monday with jury selection in U.S. District Court in Washington — Graves said during the the extensive session with reporters and editors he was confident Jan 6. Defendants can enjoy a fair trial in the community where the deadly civil disorder occurred.
Reffitt, from Texas, who is believed to have ties to a far-right group, is accused of storming the Capitol while carrying a gun in its holster. He will be the first of some 750 defendants to face a jury, which will be made up of registered voters in the majority Democratic city. So far, around 210 people have pleaded guilty to various crimes in the investigation.
“We know there were … probably about 2,000 people, depending on how you count them, who were in a restricted area” of the Capitol as the chaos unfolded, Graves said. “Now the extent to which we will be able to identify individuals who have not yet been identified, we will just have to see.”
In a written update in early February, the bureau said the FBI was trying to identify more than 350 people “believed to have committed acts of violence on Capitol grounds, including more than 250 who assaulted police officers.”
Congress could soon strike an omnibus spending deal that would allow the U.S. Attorney’s Office to hire more people “to work exclusively” on Jan. 6 cases in a reorganized, stand-alone “Capitol headquarters section,” Graves said. . Senate and House officials voted to fund much of Biden’s requested budget increase for the Justice Department, which would add up to 100 positions and 60 prosecutors to fight domestic terrorism. The department said that would include the increase in cases following the attack on the Capitol.
With approximately 350 attorneys, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District, unlike those in the 50 states, not only prosecutes federal offenses (including many of the nation’s highest-profile cases), but also performs the functions of an office of the local district attorney, prosecuting violations of municipal law such as murder, sexual assault, and drug trafficking. These cases are handled by the DC Superior Court.
In that sense, the top federal prosecutor in the capital plays a much bigger role in protecting the safety of the community around the corner than other US law firms across the country.
Graves, 46, said as a prosecutor in the office for nine years, starting in 2007 in Superior Court, he witnessed effective strategies to address violence in city neighborhoods, including targeting “the handful of individuals” who cause a disproportionate amount of crime. As in the past, he said, prosecutors will focus on identifying and “proactively building cases involving these people, instead of just reacting and waiting for incidents to arise and hoping you get it.” witnesses and evidence”.
The approach appears to fit in with the Building Blocks DC initiative launched last year by DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), which is touted as a public health effort rather than just an enforcement strategy. A Building Blocks program consultant studied homicides and shootings in the district over specific time periods to determine the characteristics of the city’s most violent offenders and the reasons for the shootings. The idea is to find ways to curb violence by developing a deeper understanding of the motives behind it.
Graves, a 2001 Yale Law School graduate who left the U.S. attorney’s office in 2016 to return to private practice, recalled that DC police and federal law enforcement haven’t always worked together in a meaningful way. transparent during his previous term. Since his return, he said, he has noticed that inter-agency cooperation has improved considerably, which is helping to stem the bloodshed in the streets.
“I’ve never seen the lines of communication and the willingness to talk about shared strategies as strong as they are right now,” he said. “Many times, 10 or 15 years ago, when I was prosecuting violent crimes, you had strong law enforcement partners. [but] each of them rowed somehow in his own direction.
Despite this coordination, Graves said, many obstacles remain to improving public safety and the administration of justice in the district, including documented failures of the DC Department of Forensic Sciences (DFS), which operates the crime lab of the city, and the continuation of the pandemic. related slowdowns in federal and DC courts, leading to mountains of backlogs. Social disruption caused by the health crisis has also contributed to spikes in shootings, carjackings and other crimes in cities across the country, authorities say.
After the crime lab lost its accreditation last spring and stopped processing evidence for DC police and prosecutors, an investigation by a consultant confirmed longstanding concerns about DFS mismanagement, including including its firearms unit, where ballistics examiners are “not qualified to make accurate, common-source determinations,” the consultant said.
The director of DFS resigned and Bowser pledged to overhaul the department. Meanwhile, the US Attorney’s office has turned to outside experts for forensic analysis.
“It doesn’t come without costs, both the cost in federal dollars … and also the cost in time, because we go to independent labs, and frankly, there aren’t many,” Graves said.
“We also obviously have concerns with all the cases in which we have relied on [DFS] testimonies in the past, making sure that the evidence that we relied on, the opinions that we relied on, can be independently corroborated,” he said, adding that his office “is also thinking to what we’re going to have to see before I’m comfortable sponsoring their testimonial again, which is no small challenge. »
Regarding the backlog of cases related to the pandemic, Graves said: “I think we are making good progress” even after a spike in covid-19 infections, caused by the omicron variant of the coronavirus, has recently blocked the full reopening of the courts. “Our partners on the bench are strongly committed to resolving the backlog,” he said, “and our incredibly strong Superior Court side leadership team has great plans to help us through. get through that.” He said, “There’s a trendline to get there.”
When Graves arrived in November, after a period of historic turmoil for the office, he was the city’s fifth U.S. attorney in 21 months and the first in that period to be formally nominated by the White House and confirmed by the Senate. In previous years, President Donald Trump had targeted the office for its handling of politically explosive lawsuits against Trump allies and foes.
The Justice Department moved Trump’s first appointee, Jessie K. Liu, in early 2020, and her successor was removed from office amid controversy over the sentencing of Trump confidant Roger Stone. for obstructing Congress and intimidating witnesses. Justice officials had pushed for a relatively lenient sentencing recommendation for Stone, prompting the resignation of prosecutors handling the case in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Two government career lawyers then served as temporary US attorneys, and neither could dispel the perception that the office had become toxically politicized.
Given all of this, the more the pandemic, the more daunting the scale of the Capitol riot investigation, Graves said he didn’t expect to see any happy faces when he showed up for the premiere. times at work. But he had a “pleasant surprise”, he said.
“People here continue to be incredibly dedicated and committed to overcoming all of these challenges,” he said. “The morale is better than I could have hoped for, considering all the challenges people are facing personally and professionally.”