WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Wednesday urged the Justice Department to investigate whether jail officials are violating the civil rights of people charged in the Capitol riots who are being held in jail while they await trial.
The judge’s order didn’t require that DOJ take any specific action, but it represented a significant escalation of complaints that defense lawyers in the Capitol riot prosecutions have raised for months about the conditions their clients have faced in the DC jail.
US District Judge Royce Lamberth held DC jail officials in civil contempt for failing to follow an order last week to release the medical records of defendant Christopher Worrell to the federal authorities managing his treatment for a hand fracture. The judge didn’t impose a formal sanction, but directed the court to send a copy of his order to DOJ “for appropriate inquiry into potential civil rights violations of January 6 defendants, as exemplified in this case.”
As of Wednesday, 45 alleged Capitol rioters are being held at the DC jail while their cases are pending; of nearly 640 people charged to date, approximately 70 have been ordered to stay in pretrial detention after judges determined they posed a danger to the community or a flight risk. Defense attorneys have alerted judges to problems they’ve encountered trying to arrange meetings with their clients or to have defendants review evidence; they’ve also alleged mistreatment by jail staff, unsanitary conditions, and an overuse of solitary confinement.
Lamberth’s contempt order was limited to a specific issue with Worrell, a Florida man affiliated with the Proud Boys extremist group, according to the government. Worrell has been in custody since his arrest in March on charges that he joined the riots at the Capitol and deployed pepper spray toward police on the grounds outside. Worrell’s court filings detail several serious health problems, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; his lawyers have argued that he isn’t receiving adequate care, while the government has largely defended his treatment while in custody.
Wednesday’s order dealt with how jail officials had managed Worrell’s treatment for a finger fracture that he sustained after a fall in mid-May. Earlier this month, the US attorney’s office and Worrell’s lawyer notified the court that the US Marshals Service was “in the process” of approving surgery; federally charged defendants like Worrell often spend pretrial detention in a local jail, but federal agencies still play a role in managing their custody and care. The judge contacted a Marshals Service official for more information and learned that the delay was because the DC Department of Corrections hadn’t provided Worrell’s medical records.
On Oct. 8, Lamberth issued an order directing DC jail officials to immediately send Worrell’s records to the Marshals Service. On Oct. 12, the judge released another order scheduling Wednesday’s contempt hearing after learning that jail officials had told the Marshals Service that Worrell was scheduled for another medical evaluation this month and that the feds would get his medical records after that appointment.
During the contempt hearing, Lamberth concluded that the handling of Worrell’s records was “more than just inept and bureaucratic jostling of papers,” according to a report by the Washington Post.
“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,” the judge said, per the Post’s courtroom coverage.
Chris Geldart, DC's deputy mayor for Public Safety and Justice, released a statement saying that the Department of Corrections "has made every effort to comply" with Lamberth's orders in Worrell's case.
"The Department works to ensure the Constitutional rights of all residents and will fully cooperate with any lawful inquiries or investigation by the United States Department of Justice and/or the United States Attorney’s Office," Geldart said.
Worrell had previously unsuccessfully challenged an order from Lamberth keeping him in pretrial detention. In May, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit upheld his incarceration, noting that in addition to the fact that he'd been charging with violence against police, Lamberth's "dangerousness determination is further buttressed by the threats against others — including potential witnesses — that appellant indicated to the FBI, as well as his membership in and alleged coordination with the Proud Boys, some of whose members have been indicted for conspiring to attack Congress."
Worrell is in the midst of a renewed push to be released. His attorney Alex Stavrou wrote in an email that they expected Lamberth to rule on that issue soon now that the judge had an update on Worrell's medical condition.
"Both my client and I are pleased with the outcome of the hearing and Judge Lambert’s [sic] ruling today. On behalf of all January 6 defendants, we support the Judges position that the Office of the Attorney General investigate into potential civil rights violations. On behalf of Christopher Worrell and all January 6 defendants, we trust and pray that the Office of the Attorney General will conduct this inquiry immediately and without prejudice," Stavrou wrote.
The complaints that incarcerated Jan. 6 defendants and their lawyers have raised track longstanding problems with conditions at the DC jail. Plans for the city to build a new jail to replace what a city auditor described in 2019 as the “aging and deteriorating” facility have been stalled for more than a decade, according to the Post.
Updated with information about the number of Jan. 6 defendants at the DC jail, as well as statements from a DC official and Christopher Worrell's attorney.