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TUES: New Mexico Democrats seek tax rebates ahead of election, + More

Democratic members of the state House speak ahead of a special legislative session aimed at providing financial relief from rising inflation on Monday, April 4, 2022, in Santa Fe, N.M. State representatives said they'll pass legislation to mitigate the increasing costs of fuel and food. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
Cedar Attanasio/AP
Democratic members of the state House speak ahead of a special legislative session aimed at providing financial relief from rising inflation on Monday, April 4, 2022, in Santa Fe, N.M. State representatives said they'll pass legislation to mitigate the increasing costs of fuel and food. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

New Mexico Democrats seek tax rebates ahead of election - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico's Democratic-led Legislature pushed Tuesday for one-time payments to residents of $500 per individual or $1,000 per household to offset steep prices for fuel and raging inflation.

The aid package would distribute nearly $700 million to adult residents of all income levels, including elderly people with little or no income who don't ordinarily file taxes and undocumented immigrants.

The bill advanced toward a House floor vote on the opening day of a special legislative session, with nearly unified support from Democrats and divided opinions among Republicans.

More than a dozen states are considering or implementing payouts to the public in response to raging inflation and budget surpluses, with some tax reductions also under consideration. Gas prices have surged to record highs in the U.S. amid the war in Ukraine and a ban on imports of Russian oil.

Fuel prices are taking a bite out household finances at the same time that New Mexico state government is experiencing a financial windfall linked to record-setting oil production in the Permian Basin. New Mexico last year surpassed North Dakota to become the No. 2 oil producer in the nation behind Texas.

Supporters of the proposed payments, including Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, say it is incumbent on state government to help people experiencing financial hardship due to inflation.

Republicans legislators warned that rebates would only stoke inflation further. They criticized the timing of staggered rebates in proximity to the November general election as Lujan Grisham seeks a second term in office.

Republican state Rep. Randal Crowder of Clovis said the legislation is timed primarily for political gain and could make matters worse.

"It's going to be a good boost, but it's going to add to inflation," Crowder said. "It's going to put more pressure and pain on people who are not going to be able to deal with it. ... We're pouring gas on a roaring fire."

Democratic Rep. Christine Chandler of Los Alamos, cosponsor of the rebate plan, says state payments would be staggered across several months to avoid predatory price hikes.

Voters aren't necessarily swayed by tax rebates, said Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf.

"I really don't think that the voters are going to decide whether or not someone should be elected governor on the basis of a tax rebate," said Egolf, who is not seek reelection. "We're going to make the right decision for the people of the state given the economic circumstances."

Democratic state Rep. D. Wanda Johnson, a Navajo tribal member from Rehoboth, endorsed the inflation payments by invoking the vast driving distances between communities on the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico – and the expense of abrupt changes in fuel prices.

"Those are a lot of miles," she said. "The price tag begins to add up."

Most New Mexico taxpayers already are due to receive a separate $250 rebate from the state in July, with the exclusion of upper-income individuals. Lawmakers also added an annual per-child tax credit or rebate of between $25 and $175 depending on household income.

The new initiative sets aside $20 million in payments on a first-come, first-serve basis for people who don't file tax returns because they don't make enough money. That provision is aimed largely at the elderly, but is open to all adults who can demonstrate residency.

State tax officials noted that the proposed tax rebates would be available not only to U.S. citizens but also undocumented immigrants who file taxes using a substitute tax identification number from the IRS.

Legislators also are rebooting a vetoed bill containing $50 million in pet projects ranging from food banks to uranium mine cleanup and domestic violence shelters. Lujan Grisham has called for greater transparency in spending requests by legislators.

Navajo Nation eases COVID restrictions; mask mandate remains - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation loosened coronavirus pandemic restrictions Tuesday to allow more people into businesses, including casinos, and for social and other gatherings.

Tribal casinos, restaurants, movie theaters, campgrounds, museums, movie theaters and other businesses now can operate at 75% capacity, up from 50% capacity that had been in place since last summer. Businesses must submit a plan to the tribe's Division of Economic Development before they can implement the new limits.

Up to 25 people now can gather in person for traditional ceremonies, church, youth programs, training events and holiday gatherings — up from 15 previously.

Outdoor events, such as organized races or walks, and bicycle rides now can have up to 50 people.

Schools also have capacity limits for orientations and other gatherings not related to instruction and for sporting events. Indoor arenas can be at 50% of maximum capacity, and outdoor seating areas at 75%.

The Navajo Nation, which is largest reservation in the U.S. at 27,000 square miles, has been more cautious with the pandemic than the states that surround it. Utah, New Mexico and Arizona do not have mask mandates, and businesses there have been fully reopened for months.

A mask mandate in public places on the reservation remains, and tribal officials reemphasized a safer-at-home order.

Tribal President Jonathan Nez said the new guidelines are based on what's been a consistent decline in daily coronavirus cases since a large spike in January after the holidays. A spike in the number of deaths reported by the Navajo Nation in late March was due to delayed reporting and reconciliation of data, tribal spokesman Jared Touchin said.

As of Monday, the tribe reported 53,082 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. The death toll was 1,734.

New Mexico inmates outline abuse in civil rights lawsuit - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

More than a dozen inmates who were transferred following a deadly riot at a New Mexico lockup in 2020 were allegedly abused and terrorized by correctional officers while being processed at another prison, marking what a watchdog group said Tuesday is the latest example of excessive force within the criminal justice system.

The allegations were outlined in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project and civil rights attorney Matthew Coyte.

The inmates claim their rights to due process and to be free from cruel and unusual punishment were violated by a deputy warden and others at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility.

The case comes as the federal government faces pressure from members of Congress to reform its own prison system after Associated Press investigations exposed widespread problems that included serious misconduct involving correctional officers and rampant sexual abuse at a California women's prison.

In New Mexico, inmate populations have declined significantly over recent years, and the state is resuming control of what were previously private-run prisons. But advocates argue that things haven't necessarily improved and a lack of independent oversight doesn't help.

"If we could create a robust system of oversight like other states have, then this type of abuse wouldn't happen as much," said Steven Robert Allen, director of the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project. "Would it completely solve the problem? Of course not. But it would be a big step in the right direction and an obvious step."

Allen said individual instances of abuse happen frequently in New Mexico but are often hard to prove. The difference is this case involved a large number of people at the same time with a corresponding story, he said.

While not named as a defendant, the New Mexico Corrections Department would be responsible for paying any damages that might result. The department declined to comment on the specific allegations, but spokesman Eric Harrison said Tuesday that the department is committed to the safety of all inmates in its care.

"We maintain a zero tolerance policy regarding any and all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment," he said in an email to The Associated Press. "Please let me be clear — we absolutely will be investigating these allegations thoroughly and will take action to make certain that any staff involved in any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior are held accountable to the highest level."

Deputy Warden Joe Lytle at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility could not be reached for comment Tuesday as the phones went unanswered. Lytle is among the defendants.

Many of the inmates listed as plaintiffs have extensive criminal records. About half of them remain in custody and others are now on parole.

New Mexico's history includes one of the nation's deadliest prison riots, when a dozen guards were held hostage in February 1980. Some were brutally beaten and sexually assaulted as rioting prisoners killed 33 of their fellow inmates during a clash that included beheadings, amputations and burned bodies.

Fueled by a combination of overcrowding and poor conditions, the riot lasted 36 hours. It led to extensive reforms within the state's prison system.

Still, New Mexico is one of many states without an independent oversight program for its corrections system. Legislation aimed at creating an ombudsman stalled in 2021.

About 15 states have independent mechanisms for dealing with complaints from inmates or for assessing conditions within the prisons. New Jersey has what supporters call one of the strongest oversight structures in the U.S., while similar programs have been established in recent years in Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Washington.

Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, said abuses continue to be widespread in jails and prisons across the U.S. because "these facilities operate behind closed doors and closed walls" and it usually takes public records requests from investigative journalists, lawmakers or advocates to get information.

"Prisons and jails just oftentimes operate in a complete black hole. It's important to have the transparency and spotlight on the problems and the abuses," she said.

According to the lawsuit, the first group of plaintiffs was taken to the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas in March 2020 following a riot at a state lockup about 80 miles (129 kilometers) away that left one inmate dead and the prison damaged. The second group was transported a couple weeks later.

The complaint states that the inmates were subjected to "an abusive welcome committee" that included name-calling and threats of physical violence by guards.

Some of them endured strip searches that the lawsuit described as abusive and punishing. Certain inmates also had their heads forcibly shaved, which left some with bloody wounds on their scalps.

"The use of sexually humiliating strip searches coupled with the forcible shaving of plaintiffs' heads while on their hands and knees with their heads in a trash can was designed to sexually humiliate, intimidate and terrify plaintiffs," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit goes on to detail accusations of excessive force despite no active security threat. It described the actions by prison authorities as malicious and cruel, saying the inmates suffered physical and psychological injuries in violation of their constitutional rights.

Allen and Coyte described the behavior by the guards as sadistic, saying a lawsuit was filed a decade ago over similar conduct involving some of the same defendants so corrections personnel should know better.

"This sort of behavior does cost the taxpayer enormous amounts of money litigating a lawsuit like this," Coyte said, "so that's disappointing to see it happening again."

Albuquerque council nixes veto of repeal of plastic bag ban - Associated Press

The Albuquerque City Council has voted to uphold a previous decision to repeal an ordinance banning grocery stores and other retailers from distributing single-use plastic bags.

The council voted last month to eliminate the ban, prompting a veto by Mayor Tim Keller, but the council's 6-3 vote Monday night overrides Keller's veto.

Supporters of the ban cited environmental reasons. Opponents said it inconvenienced shoppers.

The ban took effect Jan. 1, 2020 after being approved by the council in 2019 following extensive public debate and comment, but enforcement was suspended during much of the pandemic.

The council also authorized creation of marijuana smoking lounges though public consumption of marijuana would remain illegal. A state law legalizing recreational marijuana took effect Friday.

In other action, a move to override Keller's veto of legislation preventing the city from requiring its employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 failed. Keller's administration hadn't imposed a vaccination mandate.

Agency: New Mexico pot legalization doesn't change US law - Associated Press

The U.S. Border Patrol says agents at checkpoints in New Mexico will continue to enforce a federal law making possession of marijuana illegal even though the state has legalized recreational marijuana.

Carlos Rivera, a spokesman for the agency's El Paso Sector, said Tuesday that means agents will still regard marijuana as contraband and seize it.

New Mexico's legalization of recreational marijuana took effect Friday, but a Border Patrol statement explained that marijuana remains a prohibited drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The El Paso Sector includes New Mexico and the two most western of Texas' counties, including El Paso.

New Mexico proposes more tax rebates to offset gas prices - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Democratic state legislators announced Monday they will seek two new rounds of rebates totaling $500 per individual or $1,000 per household to offset steep gasoline prices, with no restrictions on how residents spend the money.

Lawmakers in the Democratic House majority announced the proposal on the eve of a special legislative session called by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to address concerns about inflation that is straining household finances. The governor supports the plan as currently outlined.

The proposed individual payments to adults would go out in two installments of $250, one in the spring and another in the fall, legislators said. Couples filing jointly would receive two payments of $500 each.

New Mexico joins more than a dozen states where lawmakers have proposed payouts to the public in response to raging inflation and budget surpluses.

"Our state is in a good position financially, and we should do all we can to ensure that New Mexicans are feeling that success too," Lujan Grisham said in a statement.

Eligibility for the payments will extend to some people who don't file taxes in order to support elderly residents with little or no income, noted Democratic state Rep. Christine Chandler of Los Alamos.

She said rebate payments would be spread out to minimize the possibility of additional inflation.

Most taxpayers already are due to receive a separate $250 rebate from the state in July, with the exclusion of upper-income individuals who earn $75,000 annually, or households earning $150,000 and up.

That financial relief was approved by legislators in February within a $530 million tax relief package, prior to the outbreak of war in the Ukraine and the U.S. embargo on Russian oil imports that has spurred higher retail prices for gasoline, diesel and home heating fuels.

New Mexico also is preparing to pay out approved per-child tax refunds or credits of between $25 and $175 based on household income.

The newly proposed rebates would cost the state treasury nearly $700 million.

State Rep. Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup, chairwoman of the lead House budget writing committee, said that New Mexico residents badly need the financial boost and that the state would still be left with more than $2 billion general fund financial reserves.

"I think this is a good idea and feel like we can afford this because we have the money available," Lundstrom said. "It is much better if it's out working for folks as opposed to being in a savings account, because then it helps stimulate the rest of the economy."

Though tough on motorists, surging world oil prices are providing New Mexico's state government with a financial windfall in severance taxes, royalties, fees and lease sales.

Report shows a ‘Poor People’s Pandemic’ in the U.S. and New Mexico - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico 

Eight counties in New Mexico are listed in a recent report as having the highest rates of poverty and COVID-19 deaths in the entire United States, a dire statistic as the report concludes that across the country people living in poorer counties have died at nearly two times the rate of people who lived in richer areas.

McKinley, Cibola, Harding, Sierra, Quay, Colfax, Socorro, and Roosevelt counties are listed in the report released by a team of economists, researchers and experts as part of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

“This report shows clearly that COVID-19 became a ‘poor people’s pandemic,’” said Liz Theoharis, national co-chair of the Campaign.

The report compares more than 3,200 counties looking at COVID-19 deaths, income, race, health insurance status and more. The New Mexico counties are all ranked within the top 300 in the nation, McKinley (22), Cibola (66), Harding (77) and Sierra (79) making the top 100.

While the actual number of deaths in these New Mexico counties is relatively low, the fact that they are so sparsely populated results in extremely high rates of COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people, called a per capita rate. That rate allows for meaningful comparisons across places with large variations in population.

McKinley County in northwestern New Mexico ranks 22 of the top 300 counties listed in the database upon which the report is based. It has so far seen 561 people die of COVID-19, a per capita death rate of 786, more than 3.5 times the national rate.

Poorer counties also had uninsured rates twice as high as those with the highest median income, researchers found.

“Poverty was not tangential to the pandemic, but deeply embedded in its geography,” the researchers wrote. “Yet, failing to consider how poverty intersected with race, gender, ability, insured status and occupation during the pandemic created blind spots in our policy and decision-making, which wrought unnecessary suffering to millions of people.”

For example, in March the federal government stopped helping uninsured people cover the cost of COVID-19 testing and treatment.

More than 61% of McKinley County residents live below 200% of the federal poverty line, the report found. Nearly three-quarters of people in the county are Native American, while Latino and white people make up 14% and 8.6% of the population, respectively.

The report is meant to address a lack of systematic assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on poor and low-income communities, Bishop William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said in a news release.

The report points out “glaring omissions” in collecting and reporting data on poverty, income, and occupation as they relate to COVID-19.

“Income and wealth information is not systematically collected for people who have died or fallen ill from COVID-19 in the U.S., therefore, there is no systematic way to know the poverty status of those who died,” the report states. This leaves us without clear drivers of or solutions to the pandemic, the researchers wrote.

The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is a campaign spanning 40 states to address the interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, denial of health care, militarism, the war economy, and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism.

Shailly Gupta Barnes, policy director for the Campaign, said overall, the poorest counties have grieved nearly two times the losses of wealthiest counties.

During the deadliest waves of the pandemic in the winter of 2020 to 2021 and the omicron wave, Barnes said, death rates were four-and-a-half and three times as high in the poorest counties, respectively.

“This cannot be explained by vaccination status,” Barnes said. “Over half of the population in these counties have received their second vaccine shot, but uninsured rates are twice as high.”

The counties with the highest death rates had one-and-a-half times higher poverty rates than counties with lower death rates, the report states.

Afghan evacuees mark first US Ramadan with gratitude, agony - By Giovanna Dell'orto And Mariam Fam The Associated Press

Sitting cross-legged on the floor as his wife and six children laid plates of fruit on a red cloth in front of him, Wolayat Khan Samadzoi watched through the open balcony door for the sliver of new moon to appear in the cloudless New Mexico sky, where the sun had set beyond a desert mountain.

Then, munching on a date, the bushy-bearded former Afghan soldier broke his first Ramadan fast in the United States – far from the Taliban threat, but also the three dozen relatives he would be marking the start of the Muslim holy month with if he was still home in Khost, Afghanistan.

A few minutes after naan was dipped into bowls of stewed okra and beans, Samadzoi, his wife and the two oldest children retired to worship on their prayer rugs. On Saturday evening, the two-bedroom apartment filled with the murmurs of their invocations.

"I pray for them, and they pray for me, they miss me," he said of his relatives back home. His cousin Noor Rahman Faqir, who is also now in Las Cruces, translated from Pashto to the simple English he learned working with American forces in Afghanistan.

As they adjust to their new communities, Afghan families evacuated to the United States as the Taliban regained power last summer are celebrating Ramadan with gratitude for their safety. Yet there's also the agony of being away from loved ones who they fear are in danger under a Taliban leadership crafting increasingly repressive orders.

From metropolitan areas with flourishing Afghan diasporas to this desert university community less than 40 miles from the Mexican border, tens of thousands of newly arrived Afghans share one predominant concern that's amplified in what should be a celebratory time: With only temporary immigration status and low-paying jobs, they feel helpless to take care of their families here and back home.

Abdul Amir Qarizada repeats several times the exact moment, 4:30 p.m., when he was ordered to take off from Kabul's airport during the chaos of the evacuation – with no time to get his wife and five children, who are still in Afghanistan more than seven months later.

"My concern is the aircraft is safe, but my family is not safe," the former flight engineer says after Friday prayer at Las Cruces' only mosque, where he goes by bike to find some "peace."

So does Qais Sharifi, 28, who says he can't sleep with worry for his kids left behind, including a daughter born two months after he fled Afghanistan alone.

Both men break into smiles when the mosque's education director, Rajaa Shindi, an Iraqi-born professor at nearby New Mexico State University, invites them to register for the free iftar dinners held nightly in the meeting hall decorated with gold balloons spelling "Ramadan kareem" — an Arabic greeting often used to wish people a happy Ramadan.

Local congregations like the mosque and El Calvario United Methodist Church in Las Cruces, as well as the Jewish and Christian-based organizations that resettle refugees across their national networks, have been helping Afghans find housing, jobs, English-language classes, and schools for their children.

They decry the fact that most displaced Afghan families don't have permanent legal status in the United States, despite their services for the U.S. government, military or their Afghan allies during the post-9/11 Afghanistan war. That would give them access to many government benefits and an easier path to work and family reunification.

While Afghanistan's decades of war and current food shortage mean far less extravagant feasts than in many countries where Ramadan is celebrated, the familiar tastes of home are top of mind for many displaced this year. Qarizada recalls his mother's signature festive dish of bolani, a stuffed fried bread like a giant samosa.

The mother of Shirkhan Nejat still cries every time the 27-year-old makes a WhatsApp video call home from Oklahoma City, where he was resettled with his wife and the couple's baby was born. Missing his close-knit extended family at Ramadan brings "bad emotions," Nejat said, despite his gratitude for being safe.

It's such bonds, the warmth of large family gatherings around the iftar meal and the cacophony of familiar sights, sounds and smells marking the end of a day's fast that many are yearning for in America.

In Texas, Dawood Formuli misses his family's typical pre-iftar routine: His hungry father irritably asking for his food. His mother asking her husband to calm down, and Formuli, 34, telling a joke to lighten the mood and make his father laugh. His children, in another room with their many cousins, sometimes playing, sometimes fighting. "Allahu akbar," the call to prayer, spilling over from the mosque down the street.

"Every day, it's like Christmas," the former translator at the U.S. embassy in Kabul said of past Ramadans in the three-story house his family used to share with his parents, siblings and their families.

In his new apartment in Fort Worth, the call to prayer now comes from an app, not a minaret.

The transition has been especially hard for his pregnant wife, who is still learning English. Yet there are traces of the familiar in their new community: Muslim neighbors, mosques for the special Ramadan prayers, known as "taraweeh," and halal food markets.

Khial Mohammad Sultani, who the day before Ramadan was still living in an extended stay motel on the outskirts of El Paso, Texas, had to ride nearly 80 miles (128 kilometers) round trip into New Mexico in a taxi to go buy and slaughter a lamb for Ramadan.

The 37-year-old former soldier, his wife Noor Bibi, and their six children broke the second day's fast with pieces of that lamb stewed in an aromatic sauce around the one table in their duplex, newly built on a barren foothills lot unlike their house in Gardez, with its apple and pomegranate trees.

Right after iftar, four of the children got ready for their first day of school ever the next morning, another new thrill for their parents who never received a formal education.

But when it comes to faith, Sultani will continue to teach his children at home, as his father did for him.

The three oldest children – a boy, 11, and two girls, 9 and 8, with red headscarves loosely arranged over their long braids – pray in turn on a green rug that is among the family's most treasured possessions.

The family's Quran came from the military base in New Jersey where they first landed in the United States. But Sultani's father brought this rug from his pilgrimage at Mecca after another son was killed by the Taliban, a possible fate they escaped, crossing many checkpoints as they fled Afghanistan last summer.

"We are Muslim, and a part of our faith is to thank Allah for everything," Sultani says in Dari through a volunteer translator. "As appreciation for him, we're doing this."

Ex-Navajo VP hopeful announces he'll seek presidential post - Associated Press

A former Navajo Nation vice presidential candidate announced Monday that he is seeking the tribal president's post.

The announcement from Buu Van Nygren, 35, comes a month before the deadline for candidates to file. He's the first to publicly announce his candidacy.

The primary election is Aug. 2. The top two vote-getters move on to the November general election.

More than a dozen people typically run for president of the Navajo Nation, which has the largest land mass of any Native American tribe in the U.S. and is second in population with about 400,000 tribal members.

Current Navajo President Jonathan Nez has not said whether he'll seek reelection.

Nygren and his wife, Arizona state Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren, rode on horseback into Window Rock where he told a small crowd about his plans to improve the Navajo Nation.

Nygren's first language is Navajo, and he's from the Utah portion of the reservation. His father was Vietnamese.

Nygren recently resigned as the chief commercial officer at the Navajo Engineering and Construction Authority to run for tribal president.

Nygren was former Navajo President Joe Shirley's running mate in the 2018 election. The two lost to Nez and current Vice President Myron Lizer, who now is seeking the Republican nomination for Arizona's 2nd Congressional District.

Fire engulfs home of retired Santa Fe assistant fire chief - Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

A retired Santa Fe assistant fire chief continues to recover from severe burns after his own home was decimated last week in a blaze.

Ted Bolleter remains in the University of New Mexico Burn Center, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

His daughter, Savannah Bolleter-Baca, told the newspaper Saturday he was in stable condition but "in a lot of pain." He suffered second- and third-degree burns to his hand, feet and face.

Bolleter, 55, was also a former fire marshal with the Santa Fe Fire Department.

The fire broke out just before 6 p.m. Friday. Fire officials determined wind had blown an ember from a fire pit, setting wooden patio furniture on fire.

Bolleter-Baca says the fire then caused two propane tanks to explode.

There were eight people in the home at the time, including five children. Bolleter's daughter said everyone was able to get out safely except Bolleter, who ran through the blaze and around the back of the house.

Several crews responded. One firefighter suffered burns to his shoulders, chest area and neck. He was later treated at a hospital and released.

The blaze was finally brought under control by 1 a.m. Saturday.

Bolleter-Baca says her parents' home will have to be rebuilt.

Santa Fe Fire Chief Brian Moya says the fire definitely hits close to home.

Ex-police officer faces jury trial on Capitol riot charges - By Michael Kunzelman Associated Press

Over a year ago, two off-duty police officers from a small town in Virginia were charged with storming the U.S. Capitol together. One of them is heading to trial and faced a courtroom full of potential jurors on Monday. The other could be a key prosecution witness.

Jury selection is scheduled to resume Tuesday for the federal trial of former Rocky Mount police officer Thomas Robertson. The judge presiding over Robertson's trial questioned prospective jurors for several hours on Monday, the first day of jury selection.

Robertson's trial will be the third among hundreds of people charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. The first two trials both ended with convictions, although one of those defendants was acquitted of a disorderly conduct charge.

One of Robertson's former colleagues, Jacob Fracker, was scheduled to join him on trial in Washington, D.C., this week. Instead, Fracker reached a plea deal and agreed to cooperate with federal authorities.

Fracker pleaded guilty last month to conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding, the joint session of Congress that convened Jan. 6 to certify President Joe Biden's electoral victory. He is listed as a potential trial witness.

Robertson is charged with six counts, including obstruction of an official proceeding, civil disorder, entering and remaining in a restricted building and disorderly conduct in a Capitol building.

U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper told prospective jurors that the trial could stretch into next week. The judge asked potential jurors if they have any direct or indirect connections to the events of Jan. 6 and if they could set aside any strong political beliefs to be fair and impartial. He disqualified a few members of the jury pool, including a man who was walking his dog near the Capitol on Jan. 6 and posted video of the riot on social media.

"It was chaos," the man said.

Robertson and Fracker both served as police officers in Rocky Mount, a town about 25 miles south of Roanoke with roughly 5,000 residents. The town fired both of them after their arrests.

Other former police officers are among the hundreds of people charged with joining the mob that stormed the Capitol.

Tam Dinh Pham, an off-duty Houston police officer on Jan. 6, was sentenced in December to 45 days imprisonment after pleading guilty to a riot-related misdemeanor. A trial is scheduled to start on April 25 for Thomas Webster, a retired New York City police officer charged with assaulting an officer at the Capitol. Former North Miami Beach police officer Nicholes Lentz, who also pleaded guilty to a riot-related misdemeanor, is scheduled to be sentenced May 10.

Robertson and Fracker drove with a neighbor to Washington on the morning of Jan. 6. A court filing in Fracker's case says Robertson brought three gas masks for them to use. After listening to speeches near the Washington Monument, Fracker, Robertson and the neighbor walked toward the Capitol, donned the gas masks and joined the growing mob, the filing says.

Robertson was carrying a large wooden stick and used it to impede Metropolitan Police Department officers who arrived to help Capitol police officers hold off the mob, according to prosecutors. Robertson was photographed in the Capitol's crypt making an obscene gesture in front of a statute of John Stark, an American general during the Revolutionary War, prosecutors said.

After the riot, Robertson posted a string of Facebook messages that were "illustrative of a sincere commitment to violence," prosecutors said. In a Jan. 8 post, Robertson wrote, "Being nice, polite, writing letters and sending emails hasn't worked."

"All thats left is violence and YOU and your 'Friends on the other side of the isle' have pushed Americans into that corner. The picture of Senators cowering on the floor with genuine fear on their faces is the most American thing I have seen in my life," he wrote, according to prosecutors.

A Capitol police officer told Robertson he could enter the building but shouldn't go into any "restrictive areas," defense attorney Mark Rollins said in a court filing last year. Robertson was inside the Capitol for only 10 minutes and didn't assault anybody or break anything, Rollins said.

Robertson was arrested a week after the riot and initially released from custody. But he has been jailed since Cooper ruled in July that he violated the terms of his pretrial release by possessing firearms.

Robertson ordered 34 guns before June 29, when FBI agents searched his home in Ferrum, Virginia. The judge rejected the former officer's suggestion that the firearms simply were World War II collectibles.

Robertson served in the U.S. Army before working as a police officer in Vinton, Virginia, according to Rollins. Robertson rejoined the Army in 2001 and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was wounded by gunshot and mortar shrapnel in 2011. Robertson underwent 10 surgeries before returning to the Rocky Mount Police Department and becoming a sergeant, according to his lawyer.

"He is a proud veteran with a love for his Country," Rollins wrote.

Robertson's trial will be the first for somebody accused of entering the Capitol building during the riot.

In the first Capitol riot trial, a jury convicted a Texas man of storming the Capitol with a holstered handgun. Guy Wesley Reffitt also was convicted on March 8 of obstructing Congress' joint session to certify the Electoral College vote, interfering with police officers who were guarding the Capitol and threatening his two teenage children if they reported him to law enforcement.

In the second trial, a judge convicted Cowboys for Trump founder Couy Griffin, an elected official in New Mexico, of illegally entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds. But the judge, who heard testimony without a jury, also acquitted Griffin of engaging in disorderly conduct.

Reffitt and Griffin entered restricted areas outside the Capitol but not the building itself.

Another Capitol riot trial is scheduled to start Tuesday for Matthew Martin, a federal contractor who held a top-secret security clearance while working for a defense contracting company at the National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The same judge who convicted Griffin is set to decide Martin's case.