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Plea agreement delayed in Sylva man’s Jan. 6 case

Law enforcement patrols Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day. Jeffrey Delannoy/SMN photo Law enforcement patrols Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day. Jeffrey Delannoy/SMN photo

Lewis Easton Cantwell, a Sylva resident facing charges related to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol Building, was expected to strike a plea deal during a virtual court hearing last week but instead announced a change in representation, along with a request to continue the case into 2022. 

Both Judge Emmet Sullivan and U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Schesnol said during the Dec. 10 hearing that the change of plans was a surprise to them, as they’d expected to move forward with the plea deal under consideration. However, once Sullivan opened the hearing, California-based Attorney Nic Cocis entered his request to replace Eduardo Balarezo as Cantwell’s attorney of record and to continue the case. A hearing is now scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday, Feb. 4. 

“This case is complex,” Sullivan told Cocis. “You have a lot to get up on. If you need a later date, I’m happy to give you a later date.”

“The fourth is OK for now,” Cocis responded.

Balarezo, whose website describes him as “nationally and internationally recognized for his representation of many high-profile clients,” had been representing Cantwell since his first appearance before Sullivan on March 2. Both Cocis and Balarezo have experience representing Jan. 6 defendants. 

“We were prepared today to go forward with the change of plea,” Schesnol said during the hearing. “I have noticed Mr. Cocis that the government cannot make a promise to guarantee that the plea agreement will be kept open, because it changed sort of suddenly, so we need to evaluate the situation.”

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However, she added, due to the short time period between now and Feb. 4, the government “probably” will be able to extend the plea deal. 

“I would seriously encourage the government to keep it open at least until February 4,” said Sullivan. 

Cantwell, 35 at the time he was charged Feb. 17, faces six charges that combined carry a maximum sentence of 28 years in prison. In the first two counts, the most serious of the six, the grand jury indictment accuses Cantwell of interfering with a law enforcement officer while committing a civil disorder that adversely affects a “federally protected function” and of “corruptly” obstructing a Congressional proceeding by entering and remaining in the U.S. Capitol without permission and “committing an act of civil disorder, engaging in disorderly and disruptive conduct and destroying federal property.”

On Jan. 6, the day the U.S. Congress was slated to certify the results of the November presidential election, a mob of Trump supporters who believed the election had been stolen marched on the Capitol building. Many of them entered it illegally, clashing with law enforcement officers at the entrances and even breaching the chambers. Members of the House and Senate — then in the process of certifying the votes that made Joe Biden the next president — were forced to evacuate ahead of the oncoming rioters. 

The grand jury indictment alleges that Cantwell was part of the melee. During a Feb. 22 phone interview, Cantwell admitted he was there but said he never attacked anyone and didn’t go inside the Capitol Building. At most, he said, he’s guilty of trespassing. 

Throughout the legal process, Cantwell has been asked to exclude the time between hearings from federal calculations that ensure defendants’ right to a speedy trial. Much of the delay has been due to the large number of materials involved in discovery for Jan. 6 defendants. 

According to a Nov. 5 memo filed in Cantwell’s case, at that point the government had provided more than 23,000 surveillance footage files as discovery in Jan. 6 cases. The government planned to release additional file types on a rolling basis through the end of the year, including Metropolitan Police Department internal investigation reports, case-specific discovery for other defendants, footage obtained from news media, custodial statements of other defendants, and more. By the end of January, the memo said, the government intends to provide the discoverable portions of several hundred thousand FBI records — a substantial portion of which may not be directly related to any of the defendants — and an inventory of any materials not yet uploaded so that defendants can request any specific material deemed relevant. 

“At that point the defense will either have or have access to the vast majority of potentially relevant materials in our possession,” the memo reads. “Given the scope of the existing investigation and its on-going nature, we expect that we will continue to obtain materials, which we will produce expeditiously.”

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