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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Oath Keepers leader convicted of sedition in landmark Jan. 6 case

Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers militia, in 2016. His conviction Tuesday marked the first successful sedition prosecution since 1995.

By Alan Feuer and Zach Montague

Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia, and one of his subordinates were convicted earlier this week of seditious conspiracy as a jury found them guilty of seeking to keep former President Donald Trump in power through an extensive plot that started after the 2020 election and culminated in the mob attack on the Capitol.

The jury in U.S. District Court in Washington found three other defendants in the case not guilty of sedition and acquitted Rhodes of two separate conspiracy charges.

The split verdicts, coming after three days of deliberations, were a landmark — if not total — victory for the Justice Department, which poured enormous effort into prosecuting Rhodes and his four co-defendants.

The sedition convictions marked the first time in nearly 20 trials related to the Capitol attack that a jury had decided the violence that erupted Jan. 6, 2021, was the product of an organized conspiracy.

Seditious conspiracy is the most serious charge brought so far in any of the 900 criminal cases stemming from the vast investigation of the Capitol attack, an inquiry that could still result in scores, if not hundreds, of additional arrests. Rhodes, 57, was also found guilty of obstructing the certification of the election during a joint session of Congress Jan. 6 and of destroying evidence in the case. On those three counts, he faces a maximum of 60 years in prison.

Nearly two years after the assault on the Capitol by Trump supporters, the events of Jan. 6 and what led up to them remain at the center of American politics and the subject of multiple investigations, including an inquiry by the Justice Department into any criminal culpability that Trump and some of his allies might face and an exhaustive account being assembled by a House select committee.

The conviction of Rhodes underscored the seriousness and intensity of the effort by pro-Trump forces to reverse the outcome of the 2020 election, and was the highest-profile legal reckoning yet from a case related to Jan. 6.

But it is not clear how much effect it might have on broader public perceptions that have hardened, largely along partisan lines, over the past two years. Trump, written off as a political force in the days after the attack, is again a candidate for president, embraced by a substantial portion of his party as he continues to promote the lie that the election was stolen from him.

Rhodes was convicted of sedition along with Kelly Meggs, who ran the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers at the time the Capitol was stormed. Three other defendants who played lesser roles in the planning for Jan. 6 — Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell — were found not guilty of sedition.

Rhodes was also acquitted of two different conspiracy charges: one that accused him of plotting to disrupt the election certification in advance of Jan. 6 and the other of planning to stop members of Congress from discharging their duties that day.

Meggs, who led a group of Oath Keepers into the Capitol, and Watkins, who went in separately and was recorded on a digital walkie-talkie app, were both convicted of conspiracy to stop the election certification. Along with Harrelson, they were also found guilty of the count of conspiracy to interfere with members of Congress during the attack. All five were convicted of obstructing an official proceeding and destroying evidence in the case.

Taken as a whole, the verdicts suggested that the jury rejected the centerpiece of Rhodes’ defense: that he had no concrete plan on Jan. 6 to disrupt the transfer of presidential power and to keep Joe Biden from entering the White House.

But the jury also made the confusing decision to acquit Rhodes of planning in advance to disrupt the certification of the election yet convict him of actually disrupting the certification process. That suggested that the jurors may have believed that the violence at the Capitol Jan. 6 erupted more or less spontaneously, as Rhodes has claimed.

“The government did a good job — they took us to task,” said James Lee Bright, one of Rhodes’ lawyers. Bright added that he intended to appeal the convictions. No sentencing date was set.

The Oath Keepers sedition trial began in U.S. District Court in Washington in early October. In his opening statement, Jeffrey S. Nestler, one of the lead prosecutors in the case, told the jury that in the weeks after Biden won the election, Rhodes and his subordinates “concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy”: the peaceful transfer of presidential power.

Nestler also closed the government’s case last week, declaring that the Oath Keepers had plotted against Biden, ignoring both the law and the will of the voters, because they hated the results of the election.

“They claimed to be saving the Republic,” he said, “but they fractured it instead.”

In between those remarks, prosecutors showed the jury hundreds of encrypted text messages swapped by Oath Keepers members, demonstrating that Rhodes and some of his followers were in thrall to outlandish fears that Chinese agents had infiltrated the U.S. government and that Biden — a “puppet” of the Chinese Communist Party — might cede control of the country to the United Nations.

The messages also showed that Rhodes was obsessed with the leftist movement known as antifa, which he believed was in league with Biden’s incoming administration. At one point during the trial, Rhodes, who took the stand in his own defense, told the jury he was convinced that antifa activists would storm the White House, overpower the Secret Service and forcibly drag Trump from the building if he failed to admit his defeat to Biden.

On Jan. 6 itself, Rhodes remained outside the Capitol, standing in the crowd like “a general surveying his troops on the battlefield,” Nestler said during the trial. While prosecutors acknowledged that he never entered the building, they claimed he was in touch with some of the Oath Keepers who did go in just minutes before they breached the Capitol’s east side.

Even with the convictions, the government is continuing to prosecute several other Oath Keepers, including four members of the group who are scheduled to go on trial on seditious conspiracy charges Monday. Another group of Oath Keepers is facing lesser conspiracy charges at a trial set for next year, and Kellye SoRelle, Rhodes’ onetime lawyer, has been charged in a separate criminal case.

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