Jury seated in high-profile Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy trial

Washington – Twelve Washington, D.C. residents have been selected out of a pool of dozens to serve as jurors on the highest-profile trial to date in the Justice Department's sprawling investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The jury was selected by prosecutors and defense attorneys for the five defendants on trial; members of the Oath Keepers group accused of forcibly resisting the peaceful transfer of power from former President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden during the joint session of Congress held to certify 2020 election results.

The high-profile trial – which is set to resume Monday with opening arguments – will be a test for the Justice Department after charging Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and his associates with seditious conspiracy, the most serious charge so far levied as a result of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

Rhodes and Florida residents Kelly Meggs and Kenneth Harrelson; Jessica Watkins, of Ohio; and Thomas Caldwell, of Virginia, all stand accused of planning the attack with other Oath Keepers in the months before Jan. 6, including allegedly stockpiling weapons in a Washington, D.C.-area hotel room, and coordinating movements both in and around the Capitol throughout the riot. All five pleaded not guilty to the multi-count indictment against them.

Members of the Oath Keepers on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.  / Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
Members of the Oath Keepers on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. / Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Also under pressure as the trial got underway with jury selection was Washington, D.C.'s federal court, tasked with finding the newly-minted group of twelve jurors plus four alternates to sit as fair arbiters on the politically-charged trial that is set to last more than a month.

Over the course of three days, Judge Amit Mehta and the attorneys probed the backgrounds of the residents randomly selected as potential jurors in the case.

They were asked about their views on the Jan. 6 attack – most said it was either disturbing or disappointing – and whether they had any familiarity with the Oath Keepers group, which is described as a loosely-organized group of right-wing, anti-government extremists. Attorneys also pressed the individuals on their views of Trump and his supporters.

Jurors were not required to hold neutral views about the attack or hold no prior knowledge of the militia group to be deemed qualified. Instead, the court pressed them on whether they could dispel any preconceived notions to maintain a neutral stance toward evidence presented at trial, a job some said they found too difficult given their views on either Trump, Jan. 6 or the defendants themselves.

And in some instances, defense attorneys asked the residents about their social media habits, presenting the court with snippets from the individual's social media posts found online during questioning.

The potential jurors who faced questioning held numerous positions in and around government service - from a USAID employee to an attorney who worked at the Department of Labor. Many had connections to the Capitol itself, either through friends or neighbors, and even in one case, an internship in college.

And while the consensus among the group was that the events of Jan. 6 were "very disturbing," some said they had consumed little if any news that day and had no interest in the ensuing coverage. News, said one juror who was later excused, was "boring and for old people."

Ultimately, the surveyed group was whittled down to the final 12 jurors, comprised of individuals who attended rallies for women's rights in the nation's capital, work for TSA or the State Department, and have relatives who serve in law enforcement.

Some are parents of toddlers, while another has a parent who was a prosecutor in another state.

Despite the variety, those selected had each told  Mehta that they felt they could be fair when evaluating the evidence at trial, which is set to begin in earnest on Monday.

Prosecutors said their opening arguments will take more than an hour, followed by an opportunity for each defendant's team to provide their response.

The government has alleged and will have to prove to this jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the group's planning, communication and coordination were vital components of the chaos that occurred that day and were meant to impede both Congress' lawful function and the peaceful transfer of power. Defense attorneys have indicated they will argue the Oath Keepers were present on Jan. 6 not to riot or resist Mr. Biden's presidency, but provide protection and first aid to protesters and those speaking at rallies in support of Trump. Other lawyers have asked the court to allow them to invoke the Insurrection Act as a defense, arguing their clients were waiting for the former president to call on militia groups to take action, a call which never came.

Before dismissing the newly-selected jury for the day on Thursday, Mehta said he was sure they did not expect at the start of the week that they would be in for such a trial. After this jury renders its verdict - whatever it is - Mehta and the courthouse restart the entire process as four more alleged Oath Keepers charged with seditious conspiracy are set to stand trial.

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