Jury selection kicks off in second trial of Oath Keepers accused of seditious conspiracy
Jury selection in the trial of four Oath Keepers' members charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack began on Tuesday, less than a week after two of their co-defendants, founder Stewart Rhodes and Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs, were convicted by a jury of the rare charge.
The four defendants on trial this week — Edward Vallejo, Roberto Minuta, David Moerschel and Joseph Hackett — were indicted alongside Rhodes, Meggs and five others in January. The 11 defendants were set to go to trial together, but logistics issues prompted the court to hold to separate trials. Two of the indicted members of the militia group — Joshua James and Brian Ulrich — avoided trial by pleading guilty to seditious conspiracy a few months ago.
The three co-defendants — Jessica Watkins, Thomas Caldwell and Kenneth Harrelson — were acquitted last week of seditious conspiracy but were found guilty of other charges.
The number of acquittals in Rhodes’ trial, according to U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, was part of the reason he decided not to strike a potential juror in this week’s trial.
Defense attorneys asked the Obama appointee to strike a prospective juror for cause because the man said he saw an ad on YouTube about a potential guilty verdict for Rhodes and that he watched at least one Congressional hearing related to Jan. 6, as well as a documentary on HBO about the Capitol riot. The defense insisted that means he must already have knowledge about the government’s case theory that the indicted Oath Keepers had a plan to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, and that he has already formed a connection between the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, another right-wing extremist group with several members charged with Capitol riot-related seditious conspiracy.
But Judge Mehta disagreed. He said the potential juror made clear, in a number of different ways, that the Rhodes-related ad, the Congressional hearing and documentary would not have much of an impact on his ability to remain impartial as a juror.
And given the number of acquittals in Rhodes’ jury trial, Mehta said he does not think there will be any latent bias that would impact the defendants’ ability to have a fair trial.
While Mehta refused to strike that juror, he did strike three others: a woman who said she had biased views about the Oath Keepers; another woman who had strong feelings about firearms and a man who had childcare logistics issues.
The jury selection process is slated to resume on Wednesday and the trial is expected to last up to six weeks. Rhodes’ trial similarly was expected to last up to six weeks, but it went on two weeks longer than initially estimated and the militia leader sat out a portion of it after testing positive for Covid-19. Judge Mehta also ordered a one-day delay after the diagnosis, followed shortly by another brief delay in relation to Rhodes as well as a defense attorney.
The government’s indictment accuses the members of the loosely organized antigovernment militia of planning to “stop the lawful transfer of presidential power by Jan. 20, 2021.” They allegedly communicated about the plan through encrypted chats, stocked up on weapons and ultimately traveled across the country to “oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power” on Jan. 6, 2021.
Defendants Joseph Hackett, of Sarasota, Florida, and David Moerschel, of Punta Gorda, Florida, are accused of breaching the Capitol with other Oath Keepers’ members in a “stack” formation, a military-style method in which they formed a line and placed their hands on each other’s shoulders or gear.
Prosecutors say Roberto Minuta, of Hackettstown, New Jersey, breached the Capitol about 35 minutes later with other Oath Keepers members in a second stack. And defendant Edward Vallejo, of Phoenix, Arizona, was allegedly on standby at the Comfort Inn Ballston nearby in Arlington, Virginia, monitoring the group’s communications and awaiting Rhodes’ call-to-action to quickly transport weapons into Washington.
A seditious conspiracy charge carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison and it requires prosecutors to prove to the jury that an actual agreement — to oppose the seat of the U.S. government by force — existed between each of the accused Oath Keepers.
Five members of the Proud Boys group are set to go to trial on seditious conspiracy charges in the same courthouse in front of U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly, a Donald Trump appointee, on Dec. 18.
A superseding indictment from June notes that Tarrio and Rhodes met in an underground garage on the eve of Jan. 6. They are two of the highest-profile people to face Capitol riot-related charges so far.
To date, the government has charged more than 880 people 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.
Also on Tuesday, lawmakers honored officers who responded to the Capitol attack with Congressional Gold Medals, the highest honor that Congress can give.