Attorneys face deadline to wrap Jan. 6 prosecutions. It could slide if Trump wins

With Donald Trump pledging pardons for Jan. 6 defendants and blasting the historic criminal cases, Nov. 5 looms large over the future of the largest prosecution in American history. So, too, might Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2025.

But former federal prosecutors, federal defenders and lawyers for defendants accused for crimes involving the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, are focused on a different date: Jan. 5, 2026. That’s the endgame for a federal probe that has yielded more than 1,420 defendants so far.

If a case is not brought before that date, the government cannot then prosecute you, no matter how good the case,” said Lucius Outlaw, a former federal defender and professor of law at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

“It means that there is a deadline,” Outlaw told CBS News.

The general statute of limitations for federal crime is five years, with limited exceptions for some financial crimes and thefts of historic art. Though federal prosecutors do not frequently exhaust the five-year window for bringing charges, the Department of Justice is widely expected to continue launching new Jan. 6 cases for months to come, potentially through January 2026.

Despite the passage of 3 1/2 years since the attack, federal agents continue to seek tips. A hotline for public assistance identifying rioters remains open. A newly released report by the Justice Department said “the FBI currently has 10 videos of suspects wanted for violent assaults on federal officers, including one video of two suspects wanted for assaults on members of the media on January 6th and is seeking the public’s help to identify them.”  

Several new cases have unsealed in the past few weeks. Former prosecutors and legal experts said the tonnage of prosecutions and trials might require the Justice Department to use all of the five-year window to bring some charges. The crowd inside the restricted Capitol grounds space on Jan. 6, far exceeds the approximately 1,400 defendants who have been charged so far.

“This is the biggest investigation in the Department of Justice’s history.  The idea of charging 1,400 defendants is mind-blowing,” said Rep. Dan Goldman, a New York Democrat who previously worked as a federal prosecutor.   

“It’s a monumental effort,” Goldman said. “You have 1,400 different defenses and 1,400 different schedules and motions and plea negotiations.”  Goldman praised prosecutors for taking the necessary time to bring all of the department’s cases.

But some defense attorneys argue the Justice Department is complicating its own cases by waiting so long to bring some charges. Joe McBride, a New York attorney who has represented a series of Jan. 6 defendants, said, “Four years later, some of these people have never returned to D.C. They cut out the crap on social media. They’ve resumed normal life. How are the prosecutors going to argue these (defendants) are a danger and need to be taken off the streets?”

McBride and other defense attorneys have echoed arguments from Trump allies that the Department has “overcharged” or opted to prosecute too many defendants for the U.S. Capitol breach.  

“It’s gone on too long,” he said. “Does everyone in the crowd need to be prosecuted? It seems like they’re going after everyone.”

Trump has publicly raised the prospect of pardons for Capitol rioters if he wins the 2024 election. He has not named names or specified if certain groups of defendants would be excluded from a pardon list. Nor has he publicly announced plans to order the Justice Department to end all Capitol riot prosecutions — or just some of them.   

A CBS News review of court filings shows nearly a third of the 820 plea agreements secured by prosecutors have been to felony charges. In nearly 100 of the guilty pleas, rioters have acknowledged assaulting police officers. 

The Department of Justice declined multiple requests by CBS News to comment.

Another factor is the Supreme Court’s recent decision limiting the scope of obstruction charges against Jan. 6 defendants. It could affect the ongoing prosecutions of nearly 250 defendants charged with obstruction for their participation in the Jan. 6 assault and could also upend cases that have already been adjudicated, since those who were convicted of violating the obstruction statute or pleaded guilty could seek resentencing, withdraw their pleas or ask for new trials. There are 52 cases in which a defendant was convicted and sentenced on charges where the obstruction count was the sole felony, and of those, 27 are currently incarcerated, according to the Justice Department.

Goldman and other congressional Democrats have warned Trump would likely kneecap the prosecutions, long before Jan. 5, 2026. Goldman told CBS News, “It would be just one of many steps that he has vowed to take or has already taken to undermine our fundamental values and the rule of law.”

Some Jan. 6 defendants believe Trump will end their cases with pardons or commutations or by an order of the Justice Department if he retakes office.

Last month, John Banuelos of Illinois, who’s accused of firing a gun while in the mob, told a judge at an arraignment proceeding, “Trump is going to be in office in six months, so I have nothing to worry about.”

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