Nation/World

Federal judge calls for civil rights probe into D.C. jail’s treatment of Capitol insurrection suspects

WASHINGTON - A federal judge found the warden of the D.C. jail and director of the D.C. Department of Corrections in contempt of court Wednesday and called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether the jail is violating the civil rights of dozens of detained Jan. 6 defendants.

U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth of Washington acted after finding jail officials failed to turn over information needed to approve surgery recommended four months ago for a Jan. 6 Capitol riot defendant’s broken wrist.

The defendant, Christopher Worrell, is an accused Florida Proud Boys member charged with four felonies, including rioting and spraying pepper gel at police at a critical point leading to the initial Capitol breach.

The failure of D.C. officials to turn over medical records is “more than just inept and bureaucratic jostling of papers,” Lamberth said in a hearing, raising the possibility of deliberate mistreatment.

“I find that the civil rights of the defendant have been abused. I don’t know if it’s because he’s a January 6th defendant or not, but I find this matter should be referred to the attorney general of the United States for a civil rights investigation into whether the D.C. Department of Corrections is violating the civil rights of January 6th defendants ... in this and maybe other cases.”

Lamberth stopped short of imposing further civil sanctions on jail officials, who belatedly produced the records Tuesday, or ordering the release of inmates. But he suggested that the U.S. Marshals Service may have to move inmates from the D.C. jail to other detention facilities if they are receiving improper treatment.

A Justice Department spokeswoman confirmed receipt of the referral Wednesday and declined to comment further.

The case spotlights spiraling frustration among U.S. judges over conditions at the long-troubled D.C. jail, specifically the effect of pandemic restrictions and crippling staff shortages at the facility, which houses 1,500 federal and local detainees.

Conditions at the 45-year-old facility have long been criticized by inmates, lawyers and even judges. But the complaints reached new heights this spring after prisoner advocates criticized the prolonged confinement of detainees to stamp out the coronavirus pandemic. For roughly 400 days, jail officials imposed a 23-hour-a-day lockdown to enforce social distancing before restrictions were eased this summer.

Now defense lawyers argue that complaints like Worrell’s related to medical care behind bars are the tip of the iceberg. Several have claimed in court that a lack of computers, a video conference room and jail guards, in addition to continued pandemic measures, threaten some inmates’ constitutional rights to counsel and to view government evidence against them and contribute to their defense.

Also lurking beneath such concerns is the question of how long judges will allow prosecutors to continue to ask defendants to waive their rights to a speedy trial nine months after the Capitol riot led to assaults on about 140 police officers and disrupted Congress’s confirmation of the 2020 presidential election results.

A handful of Capitol breach defendants have aggressively raised concerns, but the same problems face hundreds of D.C. jail residents awaiting trial, most of them on local charges.

As of Sept. 2, about 37 Capitol riot defendants were jailed in Washington, a fraction of the roughly 700 defendants held pending trial and 400 in federal custody.

U.S. District Judge Carl J. Nichols highlighted concerns unique to Capitol riot defendants’ cases during a Sept. 20 hearing, when attorneys for defendant Edward Jacob Lang, 25, raised complaints. Lang, a former Pennsylvania high school wrestler who was charged with some of the most extreme and repeated violence against police on Jan. 6, said he could not help with his own defense because he could not thoroughly review video evidence.

Nichols said in court that there was “a lot of tension” because of “the continued detention of defendants at the D.C. jail ... where there is complicated (digital evidence) and where the covid protocols are slowing down or otherwise making it very difficult for client communications or mounting of a defense to occur.”

The government is releasing up to 7,000 hours of video evidence that can be viewed only using a computer. Defendants can get up two weeks to view the evidence, but there is a six-week backlog in the jail for tablets, lawyers report.

Most defendants won’t need to view all the evidence - about nine months’ worth if viewed nonstop end-to-end - and will rely on their attorneys to point out highlights. But a recent spike in coronavirus cases has landed roughly a quarter of the jail population in quarantine, limiting in-person meetings.

Meanwhile, a shortage of guards and the resumption last month of in-person criminal court hearings and trials at much busier D.C. Superior Court has meant that jail workers who previously supervised federal defendants’ computer use and videoconference hearings are no longer available, because they are transporting 100 or 200 local inmates every day.

As a result, since Sept. 13, videoconference hearings for federal Capitol riot cases and other jailed defendants have been sharply curtailed, at the same time that the jail is no longer performing coronavirus tests on all inmates who must go to court in-person, judges said. That has led to at least one instance in which a hearing was canceled because a defendant transported to the court was sent back because he showed covid-like symptoms, only to learn that he had a pending negative test result, Lamberth said.

Emily Miller, the U.S. prosecutor charged with coordinating the disclosure of evidence across more than 600 federal Jan. 6 cases, told a judge recently that federal defenders and prosecutors are actively “brainstorming” and planning with jail leaders ways to increase the availability of technology to all inmates, not just Capitol defendants. But a panel of judges and other federal and D.C. officials that coordinates jail operations with the courts was frustrated at the Department of Corrections’ seeming lack of urgency, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan told Miller. Sullivan condemned one D.C. correction official’s defense of the “convenience” it was already affording detained individuals in accessing laptop computers.

“It’s not a matter of convenience. It’s a defendant’s constitutional right to meet with an attorney in a meaningful way,” Sullivan thundered. “And if I have to start issuing orders and flexing muscle, which I prefer not to do but am more than capable of doing, then I’ll do it. ... If you need me to shake order in the face of someone over at the Department of Corrections, let me know. I’m willing to work with you.”

Against this backdrop Worrell’s festering case erupted last week.

Arrested March 12, the Naples, Fla., man allegedly traveled in vans and stayed in Washington hotel rooms paid for by others who were with Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence. Like many, according to court papers, Worrell is accused of marching on the Capitol wearing a radio device and tactical gear, before personally deploying pepper gel at a single line of police guarding the lower west terrace of the Capitol moments before a stairwell and windows on the level above were breached.

A judge’s order to keep Worrell detained pending trial that was upheld by a federal appeals court found that no conditions short of jail could ensure public safety. The order noted that Worrell vowed to target a person he believed turned him in to the FBI and that Worrell was previously arrested for impersonating a police officer and intimidating a stranger “in service of taking the law into his own hands.”

Worrell has begged to be freed. For months, he has accused authorities of inflicting on him a “form of torture” and “intentional neglect” in violation of due-process rights. He has claimed jail officials denied him adequate treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; protection from covid-19, with which he was diagnosed upon arrival; and other ailments, including a head contusion suffered in a fall and broken hand.

Prosecutors and judges rejected those claims as belied by his medical record and deemed his health problems immaterial to the legal reasons for his detention. Like Lang, Worrell has refused a coronavirus vaccine that would ease quarantine restrictions.

“Mr. Worrell has a veritable army of specialists treating his every complaint,” including an ophthalmologist, two dentists, an orthopedic surgeon, physical therapist, chronic care doctors and outside cancer specialist and diagnostic technicians, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Dreher wrote in August.

On Friday, prosecutors and defense attorney Alex Stavrou notified the court that a skin biopsy found Worrell’s cancer had recurred and that he had been referred for further treatment. However, they said hand surgery recommended in June had still not been approved.

Lamberth entered an order that afternoon saying that despite repeated requests from the U.S. Marshals Service, corrections officials had not provided the necessary medical notes from Worrell’s diagnosing orthopedist. The judge compelled submission of the notes “forthwith.”

On Tuesday, the court issued a new order requiring corrections officials to explain why the department instead only emailed the Marshals Service saying it has ordered Worrell to undergo a re-evaluation by a hospital surgeon this week.

“It is clear that neither the Warden of the D.C. Jail nor the Director of DOC have complied with the Court’s order,” Lamberth wrote. “Accordingly it is ordered that D.C. Jail Warden Wanda Patten and (Department of Corrections) director Quincy Booth are to appear and show cause why they should not be held in civil contempt at a hearing at 10 a.m. on October 13.”

In court Wednesday, Stavrou said it was not immediately clear that surgery was required when Worrell injured his hand on May 16. But on June 11, a Howard University Hospital physician recommended it.

Because of the delay, Worrell also faces radiation and chemotherapy treatments, Stavrou said, and “my client and I have grave concerns going forward (about his care in jail,) including in a worst-case scenario major illness or death.”

D.C. Deputy Attorney General Chad Copeland explained that Department of Corrections medical administrators “do not work on weekends or holidays” and wrongly believed that a one-business-day turnaround met its order. The department did not mean to suggest that it did not plan to turn over the records before Thursday’s re-evaluation, he said.

“This is a lesson the D.O.C. has learned going forward,” Copeland said.

Asked why the department suddenly found the notes, he said that it had a copy of the Howard medical record but that it had not been incorporated in Worrell’s electronic medical records with the department.

“This will never happen again,” Copeland said.

Lamberth was not satisfied, calling the failure to produce it sooner “inexcusable” and the lack of response to his order Friday contemptuous.

“What happens when something like this occurs, when a surgical recommendation happens in June, and no one cares, nothing is followed up. It goes into never-never land? ... It took a court order from me and a threat of contempt to get the record, to get it approved, why did that occur? ... And no one noticed at the jail he has been sitting there in pain all this time?” the judge said.

A jail medical official said inmates “receive ongoing medical care and treatment to ensure their medical needs are met.”

But Lamberth said he could only suspect otherwise. A jail official in an Oct. 7 letter made clear that the department was going to try to persuade the Howard physician to reverse his surgical recommendation, the judge said.

“It’s clear to me the rights of this defendant were violated by the D.C. Department of Corrections,” Lamberth said. “It appears there was more going on here than laying aside the court’s direction.”

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