Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, associate convicted of seditious conspiracy in Jan. 6 riot
A federal jury on Tuesday found the leader of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, and one of his top associates in the far-right militia group guilty of seditious conspiracy for their involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S Capitol.
Three other defendants were acquitted of the seditious conspiracy charge, the most serious offense against them, but Rhodes, Kelly Meggs and the others, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell, were all convicted of obstructing an official proceeding.
Rhodes and his co-defendants faced multiple federal criminal charges stemming from their participation in the Capitol riot, including the sedition count, a rare and politically controversial charge carrying a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
Rhodes was found not guilty of a charge of conspiring to prevent an officer from discharging official duties, probably because he never entered the Capitol building during the riot, but his associate Meggs was found guilty of the riot-related charge. The jury produced mixed verdicts on other charges that the five defendants faced.
Rhodes's attorneys said they plan to appeal the seditious conspiracy verdict.
The jury's decision comes after weeks of a trial in which federal prosecutors sought to prove that the defendants conspired to prevent Congress from certifying the victory of the newly elected Joe Biden and keep outgoing President Donald Trump in power.
But though they argued from opposing sides, prosecutors and defense lawyers seemed to agree that the prosecution did not sufficiently prove that the defendants had devised a specific and detailed plan to attack the Capitol or engage in a riot before Jan. 6.
"I never had any plan or intention to have my guys try to prevent certification of election results," Rhodes, under questioning from defense lawyer Phillip Linder, told the jury. Rhodes also said he believed the actions of his supposed Oath Keeper followers were inappropriate. "I think it was stupid to go into the Capitol. It was not our mission. If they had asked me, I [would have] said 'Don't,'" he testified.
In closing arguments, James Lee Bright, another Rhodes defense lawyer, acknowledged that in the run-up to Jan. 6, Rhodes and his co-defendants did engage in a lot of "horribly heated rhetoric and bombast." But he told jurors: "It’s not indicative of a meeting of the minds. ... Venting is not a meeting of the minds. Expressing hatred and anger is not a meeting of the minds in this country.
"We've had 50 witnesses in this case. Not one person has testified that there was a plan. Not one," Bright argued.
Jonathan Crisp, representing Watkins, who, unlike Rhodes, entered the Capitol during the riot, insisted that there was no evidence that Watkins was part of a conspiracy to do anything other than illegally enter the building. "She's ashamed. She says it's terrible and I should never have been there. What evidence is there that she agreed to do anything other than ... get caught up with a bunch of rioters."
Crisp had asked the jury to acquit Watkins of "all charges except civil disorder."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler acknowledged in closing arguments that prosecutors did not allege a specific plan by defendants to storm or enter the Capitol. "We do not have to prove a plan," he told the jury. Nestler said that prosecutors had met their "burden ... to prove existence of a mutual understanding or agreement. That is what a conspiracy is, and that is what these defendants agreed to. The agreement can be either explicit or implicit."
"The evidence of these defendants' intent is overwhelming, before your eyes," Nestler told jurors. "They said they were going to do it. … Messages show their agreement, their coordination and then their cover-up. They wanted to join together and do whatever was necessary to prevent Joe Biden from becoming president."
Court documents filed by prosecutors said that as part of their conspiracy, Rhodes and his co-defendants "repeatedly made statements that demonstrated an agreement to oppose the lawful transfer of presidential power [from outgoing President Donald Trump to newly elected Joe Biden] by force."
Prosecutors quoted Rhodes telling his co-defendants two days after the Nov. 3, 2020, presidential election: "We MUST refuse to accept Biden as a legitimate winner. ... We aren't getting through this without a civil war. Too late for that. Prepare your mind, body, spirit."
Federal authorities said Rhodes told his associates that "storming" the U.S. Capitol building should be part of their plan and that he hoped Trump would declare "an insurrection and call up the National Guard into Federal service AND all us veterans and we will suppress the communist/deep state enemies."
On Nov. 9, 2020, less than a week after the election, investigators say Rhodes stated in a recorded meeting on the GoToMeeting website that a "Quick Reaction Force" — a SWAT-team-type group purportedly organized by would-be rioters — would be "awaiting the president's orders."
But investigators said Rhodes also declared repeatedly that his followers would act "with or without the President's bidding." On Christmas Day 2020, federal authorities say Rhodes told some supporters via Signal, an encrypted app, that Trump "needs to know that if he fails to act, then we will..."
During the Jan. 6 attack, prosecutors allege that at least three of the Oath Keepers who were on trial participated in what now has become a notorious military-style "stack" formation that confronted police officers guarding the Capitol and ultimately succeeded in allowing the defendants to breach the building.
Even after Trump failed to invoke the Insurrection Act — an action that the Oath Keepers apparently believed could provide legal sanction for their efforts to block the certification of Biden's electoral victory — Rhodes, according to prosecutors, "urged his co-conspirators to continue the fight," telling them that "thousands of ticked-off patriots spontaneously marched on the Capitol. ... You ain't seen nothing yet."
According to the Justice Department, three Oath Keepers who pleaded guilty to sedition charges, Joshua James, Brian Ulrich and William Todd Wilson, agreed to help the government build its case against Rhodes and other remaining defendants.
In a court filing summarizing their case against James, who before the riot had served as a bodyguard for Roger Stone, a veteran Republican operative and Trump ally, prosecutors said they believe that the Oath Keepers had wanted, and had made preparations, to try to block Biden from acting as president even after he was sworn in.
Prosecutors said they have evidence that when James left Texas in February 2021, he "took with him multiple firearms, thousands of rounds of ammunition, multiple burner phones, scopes, magazines, night-vision equipment, and other tactical gear” at Rhodes’s request.
"Rhodes told James to be prepared to transport and distribute the equipment to others upon Rhodes’s instruction and to be prepared for violence in the event of a civil war. James stored this equipment in a storage shed in Alabama and awaited Rhodes’s instructions," prosecutors added in the court filing, which was signed by James himself.
From the start of the Oath Keepers case, the legal history of the modern use of seditious conspiracy charges by federal prosecutors has raised questions about the difficulty of using this law. In 1954, prosecutors successfully filed such charges against four militants demanding independence from the U.S. for Puerto Rico, who shot up the House of Representatives, wounding several members of Congress.
The shooters and more than a dozen co-conspirators were subsequently convicted of seditious conspiracy, and the leader of the group that staged the attack spent 35 years in prison. Prosecutors also obtained seditious conspiracy convictions in 1995 against Omar Abdel-Rahman, the radical Egyptian imam known as the "blind sheikh," and nine others for plotting to blow up bridges, tunnels and other targets in New York City.
But the most recent attempt before Jan. 6 by prosecutors to bring seditious conspiracy charges against nine members of a far-right U.S. militia group called the Hutaree proved problematic. Based in Michigan’s Lenawee County, the Hutaree claimed to be Christian warriors whose website vowed that the group “will one day see its enemy and meet him on the battlefield if so God wills it.”
But a judge ultimately threw out the sedition charges when the case came to trial in 2012, ruling that prosecutors had produced little if any evidence that the defendants had put together detailed plans for an anti-government rebellion. The judge also found that the prosecution case relied too heavily on anti-authority diatribes that the judge found were protected free speech under the First Amendment. Ultimately, three Hutaree members pleaded guilty to weapons charges.