Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers, convicted of seditious conspiracy
A federal jury entered a guilty verdict Tuesday against Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the extremist right-wing Oath Keepers group, and one of his associates in the culmination of nearly three days of deliberation in a high-profile seditious conspiracy trial that lasted more than a month.
Jurors returned their verdict in the most high-profile Jan. 6 prosecution so far after closing arguments last week, finding prosecutors proved over the course of the trial that Rhodes, 57, and his co-defendant, Kelly Meggs, 53, plotted to use force to disrupt the peaceful transition of power following the 2020 election.
Their three co-defendants — Thomas Caldwell, 68, Jessica Watkins, 40, and Kenneth Harrelson, 41 — were found not guilty of the seditious conspiracy, a rarely used charge that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
The jury found all five defendants guilty of obstruction of an official proceeding, Congress’ ceremonial certification of President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, and aiding and abetting. All but Watkins were found guilty of destroying evidence.
After the verdict, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland reiterated his promise this year that the Department of Justice is “committed to holding accountable those criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy on Jan. 6, 2021.” Garland also said prosecutors in the Oath Keepers case worked with the best “traditions” of justice.
During the eight weeks of trial, prosecutors showed jurors records, photos and videos to support the theory that the five defendants planned, recruited and stocked up on weapons as part of a larger plot to “oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power.” Prosecutors likened the Oath Keepers' preparation, planning and presence at two pro-Trump rallies held in November and December in Washington as “dry runs” for their operation on Jan. 6.
U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy told jurors during opening arguments that Rhodes urged regional leaders of the Oath Keepers to refuse to accept Biden as president in the days following the November 2020 election. She said Rhodes transmitted a “step-by-step procedure” that month detailing how protesters overthrew Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic following his disputed reelection in 2000.
By December 2020, he published two open letters on the Oath Keepers website imploring Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to stay in power, she said, and at that point Rhodes told his followers that if Trump did not act they would have to do it themselves.
And as the riot unfolded at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, she said during closing arguments that the defendants saw it as an opportunity to “add bodies to the cause” and they took it. Another federal prosecutor said the five defendants “claimed to wrap themselves in the Constitution; they trampled it instead. They claimed to be saving the republic; they fractured it instead.”
Defendant Rhodes meanwhile testified in his own defense, rejecting prosecutors’ claim that the Oath Keepers came to Washington on Jan. 6 “prepared for battle.” The right-wing group leader insisted they came to provide security detail for rallygoers and speakers, as they have done in years past, and to be on standby in case then-President Donald Trump invoked the Insurrection Act to remain in power. The law authorizes a president to call on militias for the purpose of enforcing federal laws or suppressing a rebellion.
Caldwell took the witness stand after Rhodes and denied any wrongdoing. Like Rhodes, he was not accused of breaching the Capitol, but he tried to distance himself from Rhodes by telling the jury they met at a rally in November 2020 and that he was never a dues-paying member of the organization. He acknowledged staying at the same hotel where the quick reaction force was stationed, but denied that he was in charge of it and testified he thought its purpose was to “extract people or rescue people.”
Caldwell's wife offered similar explanations on the witness stand, and insisted the couple went to Washington on Jan. 6 to attend a pro-Trump rally and that their actions that day were peaceful.
Defendant Watkins also testified in her own defense. She is accused of breaching the Capitol in a military-style attack with defendants Meggs and Harrelson.
But Watkins like Caldwell tried to distance herself from Rhodes throughout her testimony, saying she never saw the two public letters he penned after the election and that there was no plan to breach the Capitol. She said it was her belief at the time that that the more likely scenario was that the Chinese government would invade the U.S. by way of Canada. Watkins’ fiancé also testified on her behalf.
Defendants Meggs and Harrelson did not testify. Meggs' defense attorney Stanley Woodward questioned witnesses throughout the trial and defended his client by saying he was only planning to provide security detail on Jan. 6 and had no pre-plan to breach the Capitol. “He can’t be in two places at one time,” Woodward said.
Harrelson’s attorney did not give opening arguments, call any witnesses or present a case. He did however give closing arguments, in which he told jurors the government “has a time problem” because the time that things transpired does not comport with prosecutors’ theory that the Oath Keepers were the leaders of the insurrection.
While it was initially estimated that the federal trial in Washington would take up to six weeks, the trial saw two delays: once due to Rhodes’ COVID-19 diagnosis and again because of his illness and matters related to a defense attorney.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, a Barack Obama appointee, presided over the weeks-long trial at the Washington federal courthouse. He has yet to set a sentencing date.
Judge Mehta will also be presiding over the Dec. 5 trial of the remaining Oath Keepers defendants charged with Capitol riot-related seditious conspiracy, among other charges.
Five members of the right-wing Proud Boys are also set to go to trial in the same courthouse on similar seditious conspiracy charges on Dec. 12, with U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly, a Donald Trump appointee, presiding.
All defendants are part of a group of more than 880 people charged in connection with the Capitol riot. As of Nov. 6, about 337 people have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and about 110 have pleaded guilty to felonies. Approximately 173 people have been sentenced to prison time. Emails to the Oath Keepers defense counsel requesting comments went unanswered as of press time.