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Key Takeaways from the Oath Keepers Seditious Conspiracy Convictions

Right: Oath Keepers founder and leader Stewart Rhodes. Left: U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta.

Left: Stewart Rhodes, via Collin County (Tex.) Jail. Right: U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, via U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

After seven weeks of testimony, dozens of witnesses, and three days of jury deliberations, a twelve-person jury handed down a mix of verdicts in a seditious conspiracy case against top leaders and associates of the right-wing Oath Keepers militia group. The defendants were accused of plotting to block the peaceful transition of presidential power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden on Jan. 6, 2021.

It wasn’t a clean sweep on the top charge: of five defendants, only Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, 57, and Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs, 53, were convicted of seditious conspiracy. That count is a centuries-old, rarely-charged crime that until this case hadn’t been prosecuted in over a decade.

But all the defendants — Rhodes, Meggs, Ohio State Regular Militia founder Jessica Watkins, 40, retired Navy Lieutenant Commander Thomas Caldwell, 68, and Florida Oath Keepers member Kenneth Harrelson — were convicted of serious felonies, at least one of which carries the same potential prison sentence as the seditious conspiracy charge.

The government’s most solid win across the board in the high-profile case before U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta was on the charge of obstruction of an official proceeding, a felony that carries a potential 20-year prison sentence. All five defendants were convicted of that count.

Meggs and Watkins were found guilty of conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, also a 20-year felony, in addition to obstruction itself. Meggs, Harrelson, and Watkins were found guilty of conspiracy to prevent an officer from discharging duties, which carries a potential six years in prison, while Rhodes, Meggs, Harrelson, and Caldwell were all convicted of tampering with documents or proceedings, a 20-year felony charge that Watkins did not face.

Watkins, however, was convicted of interfering with law enforcement officers during a civil disorder, which carries a maximum five years behind bars. She was the only defendant facing this charge, and it was the only charge that her lawyer, Jonathan Crisp, had argued that she had actually committed.

None of the defendants charged with destruction of government property — Meggs, Harrelson, and Watkins — were convicted. Although Rhodes was the most high-profile defendant in the case, it was his Florida chief Meggs who was convicted of the most offenses, with five guilty verdicts out of six offenses charged.

Getting a Seditious Conspiracy Conviction is “Like Witnessing a Unicorn.”

While Tuesday’s “mixed bag” verdict included the first-ever jury acquittals of people charged with crimes relating to the Jan. 6 attack, the convictions overall amount to much more of a victory for federal prosecutors than a defeat.

“Getting a seditious conspiracy conviction is like witnessing a unicorn,” former federal prosecutor Michael Harwin, who is not affiliated with the case, told Law&Crime. “Few have ever seen a charge, much less a conviction. It’s extremely rare.”

To be sure, the seditious conspiracy charge was widely seen as the most serious one leveled against any accused Jan. 6 rioter so far in the government’s ever-expanding prosecution, which so far has netted 29 jury trial convictions and around 900 arrests across all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The federal seditious conspiracy statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2384, reads:

If two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof, they shall each be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.

In this case, prosecutors repeatedly told jurors that it was not necessary for the defendants to have drawn a detailed plan to breach the Capitol. In opening statements, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler said that the defendants had been looking for the chance to block Joe Biden from taking office and that Jan. 6 provided that chance — a theory he hammered home again in closing arguments.

Defense counsel, meanwhile, downplayed their clients’ pre-Jan. 6 chats as simply “locker room talk” and reminded jurors that at no point had the defendants agreed to storm the Capitol — at least, not in so many words.

By convicting the top to Oath Keepers leaders on trial, the jury presumably believed the prosecution’s theory of the case: that the breach of the Capitol on Jan. 6 was a crime of opportunity. But although the jury appears to have accepted the DOJ’s framing, the government was apparently unable to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt as to Watkins, Harrelson, and Caldwell.

The Harrelson acquittal on seditious conspiracy is perhaps not entirely surprising, as the government had presented relatively little evidence against him, especially compared to the deluge of text messages and posts from Rhodes. Prosecutors said that was because said that Harrelson had successfully purged his devices of his messages, but apparently it wasn’t enough for the jury to convict.

The partial acquittals of Watkins and Caldwell are, perhaps, more surprising, especially considering both defendants’ apparent enthusiasm for doing whatever it took to keep Trump in office. Watkins in particular appeared somewhat sympathetic when she testified on her own behalf, telling jurors that she regretted entering the Capitol almost immediately after she did it. That testimony, however, was dismantled by prosecutors on cross-examination, and it seemed possible that the government had undermined her credibility.

Caldwell, too, was tripped up by prosecutors on cross-examination, despite his lawyer’s insistence that he was little more than an elderly, frail man whose main concern on Jan. 6 was the location of portable toilets. Text messages from Caldwell showed a man who seemed exceedingly eager to help provide a boat to ferry Rhodes’ Quick Reaction Force, or QRF — a stockpiled cache of weapons stored in a hotel room in Arlington, Virginia — across the Potomac River to the Capitol.

A Clear Victory for Prosecutors: Obstruction of an Official Proceeding of Congress

While seditious conspiracy may have been the most headline-grabbing charge among Jan. 6 cases, the fact that all five defendants were convicted of obstruction of an official proceeding of Congress is not to be overlooked — especially since that very charge has been challenged repeatedly since it was first brought in these prosecutions.

That charge, 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2), reads as follows:

(c) Whoever corruptly—

(1) alters, destroys, mutilates, or conceals a record, document, or other object, or attempts to do so, with the intent to impair the object’s integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding; or

(2) otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so,

shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

Defendants in Jan. 6 cases attacked the charge from the start, seeking to have it dismissed on the grounds that the alleged action taken — physically breaching the building in order to stop Congress from carrying out its Constitutional duty of certifying the Electoral College results on Jan. 6 — is not covered by the statute. Instead, defendants argued, the statute was meant to cover “corrupt” acts such as destroying or altering documents ahead of a Congressional hearing.

Only one judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia agreed with that position; at least 10 other judges, including Mehta, let the obstruction charge stand.

Notably, while all five defendants were convicted of obstructing an official proceeding of Congress, only two of them were convicted of conspiring to do so: Meggs and Watkins. Without hearing from the jurors themselves — who managed to leave the courthouse undetected following the announcement of the verdict Tuesday — it’s unclear what led them to this conclusion.

Going Forward: What to Expect from Future Seditious Conspiracy Trials

One defense attorney who represents a Jan. 6 defendant charged with entering the Capitol told Law&Crime that the obstruction convictions come with serious consequences, even with an acquittal on the seditious conspiracy charge.

“The jury’s verdict — while not a slam dunk for the government because only two of the defendants were convicted of seditious conspiracy — is clearly a defeat for the defendants because all five individuals were convicted of obstruction of an official proceeding,” said the lawyer, who currently has cases pending and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “That charge presents the same base offense level for Federal Sentencing Guidelines purposes as seditious conspiracy, along with a maximum possible sentence of 20 years. The recently convicted defendants will now turn their attention to the enhancements the government will seek against them at sentencing.”

One possible consideration is whether prosecutors will pursue a terrorism enhancement at sentencing. This tactic failed for the government at the sentencing of Guy Reffitt, the Texas militia man who was the first to be convicted of Jan. 6 felonies at trial. Prosecutors sought a 15-year prison sentence following Reffitt’s conviction for obstruction of an official proceeding of Congress and bringing a gun to the Capitol, arguing that the terrorism enhancement should apply because his underlying offense “involved, or was intended to promote, a federal crime of terrorism.”

U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich, a Trump appointee who had previously sat on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, denied the government’s request in the Reffitt case. She determined that granting the enhancement would lead to sentencing disparities and ultimately sentenced Reffitt to seven years behind bars — the longest Jan. 6 sentence to date.

The Oath Keepers’ convictions, however, arguably carry a heavier weight than that of Reffitt, who was largely seen as acting alone on Jan. 6, even though his attack on officers was seen as a key turning point in the battle for the Capitol. Plus, Reffitt’s sentence has been outpaced by one handed down by Mehta himself. The latter jurist ordered ex-NYPD cop Thomas Webster to serve 10 years in prison after being convicted of assaulting police during the melee.

While there is no reliable way to determine exactly how Tuesday’s verdicts will affect Jan. 6 defendants going forward, the defense attorney told Law&Crime that it’s highly likely that at least some are carefully considering their next steps.

“Trials ahead for Oath Keepers and Proud Boys charged with both seditious conspiracy and obstruction of an official proceeding still offer an opportunity to contest the former, but perhaps the reality of conviction of the latter,” the lawyer added.

Rhodes’ Lawyer: “I Do Believe They Gave Us a Fair Trial.”

“Today the jury returned a verdict convicting all defendants of criminal conduct, including two Oath Keepers leaders for seditious conspiracy against the United States,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in a DOJ press release on Tuesday. “The Justice Department is committed to holding accountable those criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy on January 6, 2021. The prosecutors and agents on this case worked tirelessly, with extraordinary skill, and in the best traditions of the Department of Justice.”

Although the individual federal prosecutors didn’t offer any public statements to the press following the verdict, Garland was seen later on Tuesday joining the lawyers as they celebrated their wins at Oyamel, a famed Mexican restaurant by chef Jose Andres.

That dining choice was likely not a coincidence: Andres had delivered food that night and set up an emergency kitchen in the early morning hours of Jan. 7, 2021, for law enforcement and cleanup crews who were tasked with securing and making safe the Capitol after the riots.

Garland also took a more public victory lap on Wednesday in televised comments praising the verdicts.

The convictions “were the result of tireless work by Justice Department agents, attorneys, analysts, and support staff, beginning in January 2021 with methodical collection of evidence and continuing through the presentation of that evidence during the seven week trial that began in October of 2022,” Garland said. “Their skill and dedication are in the very best tradition of the Justice Department and we are all extremely grateful to all of them.”

Some of the defense attorneys who had repeatedly fought to get the trial moved out of D.C. — alleging that district residents were biased against the Oath Keepers — appeared to soften their tune somewhat following the verdict announcement.

“I do believe they gave us a fair trial,” said James Lee Bright, one of Rhodes’ three defense lawyers, in post-verdict comments reported by CNN.

Bright added that he thought the verdict “could have been substantially different” if the trial had taken place outside of D.C., as the defendants had requested, but he praised Mehta for his handling of the case overall.

Judge Mehta, a Barack Obama appointee who had previously praised the attorneys for exhibiting the “highest degree of professionalism,” reiterated those thoughts after the verdict was announced Tuesday, telling the lawyers that they are “credit to the [legal] profession.”

Mehta had also expressed effusive thanks for the jury after the verdict, telling them that he knew they had sacrificed “a great deal” to carry out their civil duty, and reminding them that they are part of “what makes this justice system so unique.”

[Image of Stewart Rhodes via Collin County (Tex.) Jail. Image of U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta via U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.]

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