Jury deliberations begin January 6 on sedition trial against Oath Keepers founder

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As angry supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, ready to smash windows and beat cops, Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers, hailed them as patriots and harked back to the struggles that began the American Revolutionary War. war.

“Next comes our Lexington,” Rhodes told his fellow far-right extremists in a message on Jan. 6, 2021. “It’s coming.”

Jurors will begin weighing his words and actions on Tuesday, after nearly two months of testimony and debate in the criminal trial of Rhodes and four co-defendants. Final defense arguments were concluded late on Monday.

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Hundreds of people have been convicted in the attack that injured dozens of officers, sent lawmakers fleeing for their lives and rocked American democracy to its very foundations. Now, jurors in the case against Rhodes and four associates will decide for the first time whether defendants’ actions of January 6 amount to seditious conspiracy — a rarely used charge that carries both significant jail terms and political weight.

The jury’s verdict may well address the false idea that the 2020 presidential election was stolen shortly after the 2022 midterm results in which voters rejected Trump’s chosen Republican candidates who supported his baseless allegations of fraud. The outcome may also determine the future of the Justice Department’s massive and costly prosecution of the uprising that some conservatives have portrayed as politically motivated.

Failing to secure a seditious conspiracy conviction could spell trouble for another high-profile trial starting next month against former Proud Boys national president Enrique Tarrio and other leaders of that extremist group. The Justice Department’s Jan. 6 investigation also expanded beyond those who attacked the Capitol to focus on others associated with Trump’s attempts to overturn the election.

In the Oath Keepers trial, prosecutors built their case using dozens of coded messages sent in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6. They show Rhodes rallying his followers to fight to defend Trump and warns that they may have to “rise up”.

“We will not get through this without a civil war. Prepare your mind, body and spirit,” he wrote shortly after the 2020 election.

Three defendants, including Rhodes, took the witness stand to testify in their defense — a move generally viewed by defense attorneys as a last resort, as it does more harm than good. On the witness stand, Rhodes, of Granbury, Texas, and his associates — Thomas Caldwell of Berryville, Virginia, and Jessica Watkins of Woodstock, Ohio — tried to downplay their actions, but struggled when they were urged by prosecutors to explain their violent messages .

The others on trial are Kelly Meggs of Dunnellon, Florida, and Kenneth Harrelson of Titusville, Florida. Seditious conspiracy lasts up to 20 years behind bars, and all five defendants also face other felonies. They would be the first people convicted of seditious conspiracy at trial since the 1995 prosecution of Islamist militants who plotted to bomb monuments in New York.

The trial, set in Washington federal court — less than a mile from the Capitol — has provided insight into the ways Rhodes mobilized his group and later tried to reach Trump.

But while authorities sifted through thousands of messages sent by Rhodes and his co-defendants, none specifically contained a plan to attack the Capitol itself. Defense attorneys emphasized that fact throughout the trial by alleging that Oath Keepers entering the Capitol were swept up in a spontaneous outburst of election-fueled rage rather than acting as part of a plot.

Jurors have never heard back from three other Oath Keepers who pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy.

During two days on the witness stand, a seemingly relaxed Rhodes told the jurors that there was no plan of attack for the Capitol. He said he had nothing to do with the weapons some Oath Keepers stashed at a Virginia hotel that prosecutors said served as a base for “rapid reaction force” teams ready to deploy an arsenal of weapons across the Potomac if necessary. river transport. The weapons were never deployed.

Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate and former Army parachutist, said his followers were “stupid” for going in. Rhodes, who was in a hotel room when he discovered rioters storming the Capitol, stressed that the Oath Keepers’ only mission for the day was to provide security for Trump ally Roger Stone and other figures at pre-riot events.

That message was echoed in court by others, including a man described on Jan. 6 as the Oath Keepers’ “operations chief,” who told jurors he had never heard anyone talk about plans to attack the Capitol. .

A government witness — an Oath Keeper who cooperated with prosecutors in hopes of a lighter sentence — testified that there was an “implied” agreement to halt Congressional certification, but that the decision to enter the building was “spontaneous.” ” used to be.

Prosecutors say the defense is only trying to muddy the waters in a clear case. The Oath Keepers are not accused of making an agreement to storm the Capitol before January 6.

Citing the Civil War seditious conspiracy statute, prosecutors sought to prove that the Oath Keepers conspired to forcibly oppose federal government authority and block the implementation of laws governing the transfer of presidential power. Prosecutors must show that the defendants agreed to use force — not just pleading — to oppose the transfer of presidential power.

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