The criminal investigation into the Jan. 6 Capitol riot is entering a contentious phase as it nears the one-year mark, with trials set to test the government’s strategy of using provisions from a 2002 financial-industry law to prosecute some accused of leading the mob. Around 700 people who stormed the building have been arrested, including more than 200 who face charges of assaulting officers or engaging in other violent conduct. About 150 rioters have pleaded guilty, many to misdemeanors including entering a restricted federal building, the Wall Street Journal reports. Prosecutors sought to elevate some cases beyond the misdemeanor charges often applied for unruly but far less momentous Capitol protests. They turned to the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, enacted after the accounting-fraud scandal and collapse of Enron, which imposes a potential 20-year sentence on people convicted of obstructing an “official proceeding.”
Around 270 of the rioters face that felony charge, and some of them have united around an effort to poke holes in that central element of the government’s strategy—with limited success to date. Prosecutors have offered to drop additional charges for some of the rioters if they plead guilty to that count and accept a punishment of likely three years in prison. Several have taken that deal, with at least two sentenced along those lines. Others have rejected those conditions—specifically the enhanced sentence requirements—and are opting to go to trial. Some former prosecutors said the unprecedented events of Jan. 6 prompted the government to think creatively about how to charge the rioters. “I do think the charge makes sense under the circumstances, but I also think it’s necessarily novel, because these facts haven’t arisen before,” said Ben Glassman, a former U.S. attorney in Ohio who has prosecuted domestic terrorism cases.