U.S. tells jury Oath Keepers plotted to use force to keep Trump in office

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By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal prosecutor on Monday told a court that four members of the far-right Oath Keepers should be found guilty of seditious conspiracy for plotting to use force to stop the peaceful transfer of presidential power at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in order to keep Donald Trump in the White House.

Monday marked the beginning of the U.S. Justice Department's second major Jan. 6 sedition trial, this time involving Oath Keeper defendants David Moerschel, Joseph Hackett, Roberto Minuta and Edward Vallejo.

“These defendants decided to take the presidential election into their own hands when they tried to stop the presidential transfer of power by force for the first time in our country's history,” federal prosecutor Troy Edwards said in laying out the government's argument.

Opening arguments came nearly two weeks after prosecutors won a victory in the first trial against Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four others.

In that first sedition trial, which lasted about eight weeks, a jury convicted Rhodes and Oath Keepers Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs of seditious conspiracy, while acquitting defendants Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell of that charge.

All five were also convicted of obstruction of an official proceeding - the congressional certification of the election results - and the jury delivered mixed verdicts on a handful of other charges, including two other conspiracy counts.

The charges of seditious conspiracy and obstruction of an official proceeding each carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

The four defendants in the current seditious conspiracy trial were part of the same indictment as Rhodes. Due to space limitations and the risks of COVID-19 contagion, the presiding U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta split the case into separate trials.

In addition to seditious conspiracy, all four are charged with conspiracy to obstruct and obstructing an official proceeding, and conspiracy to prevent members of Congress from discharging their duties.

Prosecutors have said Rhodes and his co-defendants planned to use force to prevent Congress from formally certifying Joe Biden's election victory over Trump.

On the day of the attack by Trump supporters, Moerschel, Hackett, Minuta, Meggs, Watkins, and Harrelson all entered the Capitol clad in tactical gear.

Minuta, who led a group of several Oath Keepers into the Capitol, forcefully clashed with police, all the while screaming it was "their building," Edwards told the jury.

Vallejo is accused of staying back at a hotel in northern Virginia, where the Oath Keepers staged a "quick reaction force" that prosecutors said was equipped with firearms ready to be quickly transported into Washington.

None of the defendants in this trial have the name recognition of Rhodes, who founded the group in 2009.

Its members, which include current and retired U.S. military personnel, law enforcement officers and first responders, have turned up, often heavily armed, at protests and political events around the United States, including the racial justice demonstrations following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Hackett and Moerschel are both members of the Florida chapter of the group, while prosecutors said Minuta previously served as a "leader" of the New York area's members. Vallejo was part of a group of Oath Keepers from Arizona.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Bill Berkrot)