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What AG Merrick Garland told NPR about the Jan. 6 probe and death penalty

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One year ago today, Attorney General Merrick Garland assumed leadership of the Justice Department. He pledged to restore the DOJ's independence and to get to the bottom of what happened in Washington on January 6. He gave an exclusive interview to NPR's Carrie Johnson about his tenure so far, and she is here with us now to talk more about it. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So the attorney general has said that he is just pouring resources into the Capitol riot investigation. But, you know, there has been some frustration with the pace of that probe. I'm just wondering; did Garland take issue with that criticism?

JOHNSON: He did. Garland says prosecutors have already charged 775 people with crimes related to the storming of the Capitol. He says there's a method to how the Justice Department handles these cases. Here's what he said.

MERRICK GARLAND: Particularly federal prosecutors, we begin with the cases that are right in front of us with overt actions, and then we build from there. And that is a process that we will continue to build until we hold everyone accountable who committed criminal acts with respect to January 6.

JOHNSON: Remember; this week the DOJ charged the leader of the Proud Boys with conspiracy. And last week a member of the Oath Keepers militia pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate in the investigation that centers on seditious conspiracy. The question now is how much higher up on this ladder the prosecutors will reach.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, the question is, will this investigation touch former President Trump - right? - or members of his inner circle? Did Garland give you any hints on that front?

JOHNSON: I pressed. Garland did not want to talk about ongoing investigations. But when I asked him about political pressure and political defendants, he answered this way.

GARLAND: Look. I want to be clear about this. We are not avoiding cases that are political or cases that are controversial or sensitive. What we are avoiding is making decisions on a political basis, on a partisan basis.

JOHNSON: Garland says the January 6 probe is the most urgent and maybe the most important in the history of the Justice Department. It was nothing less than disrupting the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next, he said.

CHANG: Absolutely. Well, I also understand that Garland had a lot to say about the work that's currently underway at Justice. What did he focus on there?

JOHNSON: I asked him about the Supreme Court just recently reinstating the death penalty for the surviving Boston Marathon bomber. The attorney general steered away from specifics because that's still moving through the lower courts. But he's imposed a moratorium on federal capital punishment while DOJ leads a review.

GARLAND: I have spoken several times about my concerns about the death penalty, about the arbitrariness of its application, given how seldom it's applied in the federal system and with respect to its disparate impact on people of color and with respect to exonerations that we've seen not only in death penalty cases but in other serious offenses.

CHANG: I also heard, Carrie, that the attorney general made a bit of news with you today on the issue of compassionate release. Tell us what happened there.

JOHNSON: Yeah. NPR reported earlier this year - just last month, in fact - that federal prosecutors have been limiting people's rights to seek compassionate release as part of some plea deals. The program's supposed to be for people in prison who are seriously ill, but DOJ has been limiting people's rights there. Garland says he thinks that's wrong, so he's going to be issuing a new directive about that soon. And prisoner advocate Kevin Ring of the group known as FAMM says he's grateful to the Justice Department for moving so quickly. He's looking forward to seeing that directive.

CHANG: That is NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thank you, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.