Federal prosecutors have assembled a huge database of evidence to share with those charged in the riot at the U.S. Capitol, some of whom, like two former Rocky Mount police officers, say their actions were peaceful.
Defense attorneys will be allowed to comb the collection of documents and video footage to search for evidence that may help their clients, which the government is required to make available.
“To ensure this enormous production is organized and meaningful to the defense, we are currently categorizing and tagging the videos,” U.S. Attorney Channing Phillips wrote in a memorandum filed Friday in the case of Thomas “T.J.” Robertson and Jacob Fracker.
Robertson and Fracker were off-duty from their police jobs when they walked into the Capitol building Jan. 6 as it was being stormed by an angry horde of Donald Trump supporters.
The Rocky Mount Police Department fired them after a photograph surfaced on social media that showed the officers posing in front of the statue of a Revolutionary War hero, with Fracker flashing an obscene gesture.
More than 600 people have been charged with participating in the insurrection, including two others from Western Virginia.
What prosecutors say is the largest investigation in American history has produced a plethora of proof: videos and photographs from body cameras worn by police or captured by surveillance cameras; data seized from the cellphones of rioters; posts they made on social media and information from thousands of tipsters who contacted police.
The police body cameras alone produced about 2,300 hours of footage — which would take nearly 10 days to watch from beginning to end, the memo stated.
Robertson and Fracker have said they committed no acts of violence and were not prohibited from walking into the Capitol. Fracker has said that at one point he helped a police officer who was being attacked by a demonstrator, pulling the man off the officer.
Once the database is completed in the coming weeks, lawyers for all of the defendants will be allowed to search it by keyword for helpful evidence, typing in phrases such as a location, “Lower West Terrance” or a topic, like “Police let defendants in.”
Compiling all their evidence in a single location for defense attorneys is an unprecedented move for prosecutors, according to Debbie Caldwell-Bono, a Roanoke attorney who serves on the criminal law section of the Virginia Bar Association.
“It’s a ton of stuff to go through,” Caldwell-Bono, who is not involved in the cases, said.
“My thoughts would be that they just want to be sure that they give everything that is possibly exculpatory.”
In his memo, Phillips wrote that it would be impossible for prosecutors to recognize what every defense lawyer might consider material or exculpatory, which discovery rules require to be turned over.
“Given the volume of the material, and because defendants are in a better position to determine what evidence they believe is exculpatory and will help in their defense, it is our intent to provide the defense with all the data that may contain such information,” the memo stated.
While the searches may help some defendants, many others will find little they would want shown in a courtroom.
Police body cameras have captured more than 1,000 assaults on law enforcement officers, the memo states, and other footage shows the faces in the crowd that pushed its way inside the Capitol, forcing lawmakers who were meeting to certify an election won by President Joe Biden to flee for their safety.
More than 50 people from across the country have pleaded guilty to felonies or misdemeanors, according to a summary by federal prosecutors that was last updated Sept. 6.
Last month, Robertson rejected a plea agreement offered by the government. Other deals have been extended to Fracker and Jeremy Daniel Groseclose of Elliston, who can be seen in videos blocking Capitol police as they tried to close a security gate. None of the men have so far accepted the agreements, details of which have not been disclosed.
On Monday, the court-appointed attorney for Groseclose asked to be allowed to withdraw from the case.
Mark Carroll wrote in a motion filed in Washington, D.C.’s federal court that a “deteriorating” attorney-client relationship grew worse recently, after prosecutors offered a plea agreement to Groseclose.
The deal seemed reasonable “in light of all the video evidence” that showed Groseclose inside the Capital building, Carroll wrote in the motion.
Groseclose, who was given until November to consider a guilty plea, later told Carroll that he was not representing him fairly and that he no longer wanted him as an attorney, the motion stated.
Judge Christopher Cooper is scheduled to take up at the matter at a 10 a.m. hearing on Sept. 23. Robertson and Fracker are scheduled to appear in Cooper’s courtroom later the same day for a status update of their case.