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D.C.’s top prosecutor says Capitol riot investigation is far from over

Matthew M. Graves, U.S. attorney for the District, faces myriad challenges, including combating violence in city neighborhoods

Matthew M. Graves, U.S. attorney for the District. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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The federal prosecutor whose office is investigating participants in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol says there is no end in sight to perhaps the most sprawling criminal probe in Justice Department history and that "it’s really hard to predict” how many people ultimately will be charged with taking part in the rioting.

“We’re certainly not at the end in terms of charges,” Matthew M. Graves, who was sworn in Nov. 5 as U.S. attorney for the District, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “The million-dollar question is: How close are we to the end?”

With about 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 investigation phase.”

In his first extensive on-the-record remarks to the news media since President Biden appointed him to head the largest U.S. attorney’s office in the country, Graves discussed several topics during the nearly hour-long interview Wednesday, including fighting violent crime in the nation’s capital; the “unprecedented workload” borne by prosecutors in D.C. because of the pandemic and other factors; credibility problems with the city’s crime lab; and overall 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 in the wide-ranging session with reporters and editors that he is confident the Jan. 6 defendants can receive fair trials in the community where the deadly civil disorder occurred.

Reffitt, of Texas, who allegedly has ties to a right-wing extremist group, is accused of storming the Capitol while carrying a holstered pistol. He will be the first of the roughly 750 defendants to face a jury, which will be made up of registered voters in the overwhelmingly Democratic city. So far, about 210 people have pleaded guilty to various crimes in the investigation.

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“We know that there were ... probably somewhere around 2,000 people, depending on how you count it, who were in a restricted area” of the Capitol as the mayhem unfolded, Graves said. “Now, how much we’ll be able to identify the individuals who have yet to be identified, we’ll just have to see.”

In a written update in early February, the office said the FBI is trying to identify more than 350 people “believed to have committed violent acts on the Capitol grounds, including over 250 who assaulted police officers.”

Congress could reach an omnibus spending deal soon that would allow the U.S. attorney’s office to hire more people “who would work exclusively” on Jan. 6 cases in a reorganized, stand-alone “Capitol siege section,” Graves said. Senate and House appropriators have voted to fund much of a Biden-requested budget increase for the Justice Department that would to add up to 100 positions and 60 prosecutors to work on countering domestic terrorism. The department said that would include the surge in cases from the Capitol attack.

With about 350 lawyers, 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 a local district attorney’s office, prosecuting violations of municipal law such as murder, sexual assault and drug dealing. Those cases are handled in D.C. Superior Court.

In that sense, the top federal prosecutor in the capital city plays a much larger role in protecting community safety at the street-corner level than other U.S. attorney’s offices in the nation.

Graves, 46, said that as a prosecutor in the office for nine years, beginning in 2007 in Superior Court, he witnessed effective strategies for combating 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 those individuals, as opposed to just reacting and waiting for incidents to come in and hoping you have the witnesses and the evidence.”

The approach seems to dovetail with the Building Blocks DC initiative launched last year by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), which is billed as a public health effort rather than purely an enforcement strategy. A consultant to the Building Blocks program studied homicides and shootings in the District over specific periods to determine the characteristics of the city’s most violent offenders and the reasons for the gunfire. The idea is to find ways of curbing 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 reenter private practice, recalled that D.C. police and federal law enforcement agencies did not always work seamlessly together during his earlier tenure. Since returning, he said, he has noticed that interagency cooperation is vastly improved, which helps the job of stemming bloodshed on the streets.

“I’ve never seen the lines of communication and the willingness to talk about shared strategies as strong as it currently is,” he said. “There were many times, 10 to 15 years ago when I was prosecuting violent crimes, that you had strong law enforcement partners [but] each of them was kind of rowing in their own direction.”

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Despite that coordination, Graves said, plenty of obstacles remain to improving public safety and the administration of justice in the District, including the documented failings of the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences (DFS), which runs the city’s crime lab, and continuing pandemic-related slowdowns in federal and D.C. courts, resulting in mountains of backlogged cases. Social disruptions caused by the health crisis also have contributed to spikes in shootings, carjackings and other crimes in cities nationwide, authorities say.

After the crime lab lost its accreditation last spring and ceased handling evidence for D.C. police and prosecutors, an investigation by a consultant confirmed long-standing concerns about mismanagement in the DFS, including its firearms unit, where ballistics examiners are “not qualified to render accurate, common source determinations,” the consultant said.

The DFS director resigned and Bowser pledged to overhaul the department. Meanwhile, the U.S. attorney’s office has turned to outside experts for forensic analyses.

“That does not come without costs, both federal dollar costs ... and also the cost in time, because we’re going to independent labs, and frankly there aren’t that many of them,” Graves said.

“We also obviously have concerns with all of the cases in which we’ve relied on [DFS] testimony in the past, making sure the evidence relied on, the opinions that we’ve relied on, can be independently corroborated,” he said, adding that his office is “also thinking through what we’re going to need to see before we’re comfortable sponsoring their testimony again, which is not a small challenge.”

As for the pandemic-related backlog of cases, Graves said, “I think we’re making good progress,” even after a spike in covid-19 infections, caused by the omicron variant of the coronavirus, recently stalled the full reopening of the courts. “Our partners on the bench are firmly committed to working through the backlog,” he said, "and our management team on the Superior Court side, which is incredibly strong, have great plans for how they’re going to get us through this.” He said, “There’s a trend line for getting there.”

When Graves arrived in November, after a period of historic turmoil for the office, he was the fifth U.S. attorney for the city in 21 months and the first in that span to be formally nominated by the White House and confirmed by the Senate. In preceding years, President Donald Trump had targeted the office over its handling of politically explosive prosecutions of Trump allies and foes.

The Justice Department shifted out Trump’s initial appointee, Jessie K. Liu, in early 2020, and her successor was removed amid controversy over the sentencing of Trump confidant Roger Stone for obstructing Congress and witness intimidation. Justice officials had pushed for a relatively lenient sentencing recommendation for Stone, prompting resignations by prosecutors who were handling the case in the U.S. attorney’s office.

Two career government lawyers then served as temporary U.S. attorneys, and neither could dispel the perception that the office had become toxically politicized.

Considering all that, plus the pandemic, plus the daunting scale of the Capitol riot investigation, Graves said, he did not expect to see happy faces when he first showed up for work. But he got a “pleasant surprise,” he said.

“The people here continue to be incredibly dedicated and engaged with soldiering on through all these challenges,” he said. “Morale is better than I could have possibly hoped for, given all the challenges that people are dealing with personally and professionally.”