In a historic verdict for the Jan. 6th investigation, a federal jury in the nation’s capital convicted two of the top leaders of the right-wing Oath Keepers extremist group of seditious conspiracy — a rarely used charge accusing them of plotting to violently overthrow the U.S. government or prevent the execution of its laws.
Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs were convicted Tuesday on that count. Jessica Watkins, Thomas Caldwell, and Kenneth Harrelson were acquitted of that top charge but also received guilty verdicts on serious felonies.
All five defendants were convicted of obstruction of an official proceeding of Congress. Both the seditious conspiracy charge and the obstruction charge carry a potential 20-year prison sentence.
The jury’s verdict comes after three of deliberation following a trial that stretched on for nearly seven weeks. Jurors heard testimony from FBI agents investigating the attack, law enforcement officers who were on the ground at the Capitol that day, and even some former members of the Oath Keepers, an anti-government militia founded by Rhodes in 2009 after the election of former President Barack Obama.
The Oath Keepers trial is one of the most high-profile cases yet in the government’s expansive prosecution of the Jan. 6 riot, when scores of Donald Trump supporters overwhelmed law enforcement and forcibly entered the Capitol while Congress was certifying President Joe Biden‘s 2020 electoral win. Lawmakers were forced to either evacuate the building or shelter in place until the violent chaos subsided.
Rhodes and his co-defendants were the first to be charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the insurrection attempt. Enrique Tarrio, the leader of the “Western chauvinist” Proud Boys extremist group, was similarly charged in June; his trial is set for Dec. 12 before U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump appointee.
With the seditious conspiracy charge, jurors were asked to determine whether the defendants had plotted to use violence to overthrow the U.S. government, or stop the execution of its laws, by force. With this verdict, the answer is an unequivocal “yes” — as to two top leaders.
Such weighty convictions, in a case seen as one of the centerpieces to date in an investigation with hundreds of charged defendants, brought out statements from the top Justice Department officials, right up to Attorney General Merrick Garland.
“The Justice Department is committed to holding accountable those criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy on January 6, 2021,” Garland said. “The prosecutors and agents on this case worked tirelessly, with extraordinary skill, and in the best traditions of the Department of Justice.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray, a Trump appointee whose agency did not blink from searching the former president’s Mar-a-Lago home earlier this year, said the verdict made a statement.
“As this case shows, breaking the law in an attempt to undermine the functioning of American democracy will not be tolerated,” Wray wrote.
U.S. Attorney Matthew M. Graves, who leads the district at the heart of the Jan. 6 investigation, also sounded a similar note in defense of democracy.
According to the government, Rhodes was the driving force behind the Oath Keepers members’ plot to keep Trump in power, launching his alleged plan as early as Nov. 9, 2020. Prosecutors shared a partial recording from a conference call among members of the group on the teleconferencing service GoToMeeting. Defense lawyers attempted to undermine the value of that recording by focusing on the man who made it: Abdullah Rasheed, a convicted child sex offender who had been named the head of the West Virginia Oath Keepers. As Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler pointed out during closing arguments, however, the defense never questioned the authenticity of that recording, regardless of who was behind it.
Rhodes also publicly urged Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, which he believed would essentially give him free rein to raise a militia and use force to block Biden from taking office.
Defense attorneys argued that there could not have been a conspiracy because there was no actual plan to breach the Capitol that day. One defense witness testified that the Signal chats and GoToMeeting calls in which Rhodes appeared to encourage Oath Keepers members to interfere with the certification of the election amounted to little more than “locker room talk,” albeit bluster that had “too far.”
The trial was the first of two in a case that originally charged 11 co-defendants with the sedition and obstruction crimes. Four remaining defendants — Roberto Minuta, Ed Vallejo, Joseph Hackett, and David Moerschel — are set to face trial starting Nov. 29.
[Image of Rhodes via the Collin County (Texas) Jail. Images of Watkins, Harrelson, Caldwell, and Meggs via FBI court filings.]
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