Merrick Garland Stays on Offense Against Trumpist Violence

Posted in: Criminal Law

The attention-grabbing news Monday was of the January 6 committee announcing its criminal referrals of former President Donald Trump, John Eastman, and others of Trump’s enablers.

Beneath headlines, however, there was important related news last week from the criminal justice world: An accelerating pace of federal prosecutions of those accused or convicted of violent offenders from the world of Trumpism.

Some of these individuals participated in January 6. Others acted for reasons that derive from the same root cause that underlay it—the Big Lie that widespread election fraud changed the 2020 election’s outcome.

Attorney General Merrick Garland and his prosecutors are systematically bringing the hammer of justice down on these actors.

Four pieces of courthouse news last week demonstrate that Garland understands how important to public order it is to charge them with crime and obtain convictions.

He has taken heat for his seeming slow pace in initiating criminal action against former President Donald Trump. But his November 18 appointment of Special Counsel Jack Smith appears to be making up for lost time.

As for participants in the Capitol invasion and the perpetrators of related acts of violence since, their prosecution matters greatly for our future. Research shows that “it is the certainty of being caught that deters a person from committing crime.”

That is why consistent and effective law enforcement that results in conviction—and broadcasting the filing of charges and verdicts—are vital to public safety and an orderly society.

Garland’s DOJ has charged more than 960 individuals who took part in the violent January 6 Capitol invasion, and more than 450 have been convicted.

The country has never seen so comprehensive a prosecutorial record relating to a single event.

Let’s acknowledge the difficult choices involved. Largely because of resource constraints, a chief prosecutor ordinarily must choose between “going wide” and “going deep”—that is, between proceeding against either the multitude of those participating in mass unlawful conduct or against those who orchestrated it. Their behind-the-scenes plotting is often more difficult to prove than the crimes of those who are caught taking action.

Garland’s original decision to “go wide” may explain why Jack Smith and DOJ prosecutors are now playing catch-up with the January 6 committee in investigating Trump for crimes against the country.

Trump’s threat to law and order goes beyond his role on January 6’s violence and his failed “quiet coup” to overturn the election. He has regularly broadcast messages understood by his followers to endorse the view that the power’s ends justify violent means.

Accordingly, the Justice Department’s consistent prosecution and conviction of his disciples who engage in political violence, including long after January 6, are vital to deterring future disorder.

Late last week, we saw multiple instances of the justice system in action on that front.

On Wednesday, federal prosecutors charged Joshua Reynolds, a 44-year-old Ohio man, with three counts of making threatening interstate phone calls to an Arizona election official. The complaint alleged that in September, Russell left a voicemail for the official saying, “The only reason you’re still walking around . . . is because we’re waiting for the midterms . . . .”

The Justice Department’s Election Threats Task Force has brought at least six such federal cases. Garland created the task force to address the spreading practice among those who believed Trump’s unending and unfounded claims that ballot fraud cost him the election.

Last Thursday, in Tacoma, Washington, the Justice Department arrested and charged 48-year-old Mark Leonetti for having left 400 voicemail messages threatening Senators and House members over two years. “We are going to barbecue your ass,” one of his messages said.

On Friday, federal prosecutors charged two Tennessee men with conspiring to assassinate several FBI agents who had investigated one of them, 33-year-old Edward Kelley, for participating in the January 6 siege. Kelley is alleged to have thrown a Capitol police officer to the ground, to have smashed open a window near the Senate chamber entry, and to have helped kick down a nearby door.

Also on Friday, US District Court Judge Tim Kelly sentenced Doug Jensen, the “poster boy of the insurrection,” to five years in prison. Jensen was the leader of the January 6 group inside the Capitol that police hero Eugene Goodman led away from the Senate Chambers. Officer Goodman likely prevented violence against elected officials.

Jensen expressed no remorse for his role.

While this week’s Committee referrals have offered the country an increasing prospect of a future prosecution of those at the top of the January 6 conspiracy, last week provided proof that the Justice Department’s effort to “go wide” against Trumpist vigilantism continues to bear fruit.

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