“I can’t move this trial and I’m not going to move this trial,” Mehta said during a hybrid courtroom and videoconference hearing Tuesday that stretched to more than two hours. “It would quite literally wreak havoc for this court’s docket.”
Mehta said he was confident the court could find jurors untainted by publicity related to the House hearings.
“We are not going to avoid that publicity by moving this trial for a few months,” said the judge, an appointee of President Barack Obama. “I don’t know what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it. This is a court of law. We cannot wait on the legislative process to move forward.”
Mehta did question a prosecutor about why the Justice Department agreed in June to a delay in another seditious conspiracy case against members and affiliates of the Proud Boys group, amid concerns that the House panel might soon release as many as 1,000 witness transcripts. Both sides in that case expressed concern that such a release just before, during or after the trial could cause significant problems.
However, Assistant US Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy said Tuesday that the release of those transcripts in August seemed more certain several weeks ago, and she suggested the government believed the potential timing was now too unpredictable to justify a delay in the Oath Keepers trial set to open at the end of next month.
“The government did not have perfect information at that time, but we were afraid that it would come to bear,” Rakoczy said of the potential document dump. “And that seemed much more certain at that point in time.”
Rakoczy said that at this point, the Justice Department wasn’t sure whether the panel would release any transcripts or when. POLITICO reported last week that the panel’s chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), said a framework for sharing the documents with prosecutors had been worked out. The panel later said through a spokesperson that 20 unspecified transcripts were likely to be shared soon, but gave no guidance about the remainder.
“We have no promises or assurances that these transcripts will be released,” she said Tuesday.
Mehta emphasized that if the witness transcripts did emerge shortly before the trial, he would consider again whether a delay is warranted.
“If there are transcripts dropped on the eve of the trial that pertain to these defendants and the allegations against them, I will revisit the issue. You have my word,” the judge said.
Nine defendants are currently expected to be part of the trial starting in September, including Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes. Three Oath Keepers members have already pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy charges and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. A trial for other Oath Keepers members not facing that charge is set for February 2023.