There has been a major development in the case of the J6 defendants. Although the three-judge panel voted two to one to allow cases with obstruction charges to go through, there is a major question on how prosecutors are defining “corrupt intent.” All three judges agreed on this. Any rioter who attacked police officers will not be affected by this but hundreds of other defendants could see a major change in the depositions in their cases.
Why is this so significant? Because the prosecutors have tacked this charge onto almost everyone who was at the Capitol, but caused no violence or interfered with the House. It makes the difference between a misdemeanor and a possible twenty years in prison. If the court decides that the prosecutors are overcharging defendants maliciously, they could have to go before the bar for disciplinary action. And those who have been convicted would have their cases reviewed and could see the convictions overturned.
Furthermore, those who have not been tried yet would see those charges dismissed before their cases go to court. This would affect up to 300 of the defendants who are charged with “corrupt intent.”
At the heart of the conflict is how to measure whether Jan. 6 rioters acted with “corrupt intent,” a central element in the crime of obstructing an official proceeding. The judges noted that the requirement of “corrupt intent” was meant to avoid inadvertently criminalizing traditional protest or lobbying activities that have been a feature of civic engagement throughout American history. Any decision on the meaning of corrupt intent would have to separate those legitimate activities from potential criminal conduct.
But Judge Florence Pan, who wrote the majority opinion, said it was the wrong time to decide that broad question because the three defendants whose cases were before the court were all also charged with assaulting police. There’s little question that those who assaulted police that day acted with “corrupt intent.” But in Jan. 6 obstruction cases that don’t involve assault, determining “corrupt intent” is much more complicated, she said.
What’s still to be decided is whether or not about 300 rioters acted with “corrupt intent” in invading the Capitol building during an official proceeding. And all three appeals court judges questioned whether the prosecution had interpreted “corrupt intent” on the part of the rioters correctly.
What seems esoteric in nature is actually crucial to the defense of hundreds of January 6 rioters. The “corrupt intent” standard does not apply to those rioters who are also charged with assaulting police. But for those defendants who are charged only with obstructing Congress, how that term is defined could mean liberty or 20 years in prison.
“It is more prudent to delay addressing the meaning of ‘corrupt’ intent until that issue is properly presented to the court,” the Biden-appointed judge wrote.
The immediate effect of the ruling was a reversal of a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Carl Nichols, who determined that obstruction charges were being improperly applied to the January 6 defendants. The appeals court disagreed only because the corrupt intent standard had not been defined.
The stakes for the Justice Department and many January 6 defendants are enormous. In fact, the entire theory the DOJ has been using to prosecute all but a handful of defendants may be blown up by a different interpretation of corrupt intent.
“A defendant must intend to obtain a benefit that he knows is unlawful,” Walker concluded.
Defense attorneys for Jan. 6 defendants are already poring over Walker’s analysis. Nicholas Smith, who argued the case on behalf of three Jan. 6 defendants before the appeals court panel in December, said that if Walker’s contention is correct, his narrow definition of “corrupt intent” is already the binding opinion of the court.