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Oath Keepers leader found guilty of seditious conspiracy

FOX59
FOX59
 2022-11-29

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Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the far-right Oath Keepers group, was found guilty Tuesday of seditious conspiracy over his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot, a win for the Justice Department as it pursues the little-used charge for members of multiple extremist groups who contributed to the chaos at the Capitol.

Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs was also found guilty of seditious conspiracy, while all five defendants on trial were found guilty of obstruction of an official proceeding.

The trial brings the most significant verdict yet in a Justice Department investigation that has led to charges for more than 700 individuals, but many of its most high-profile cases, including other members of extremist groups, have yet to reach their conclusions.

Seditious conspiracy carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison and hasn’t been used successfully since a 1990s terrorism case.

The verdict is especially significant in the case of Rhodes, a Yale-educated lawyer who never entered the Capitol that day but instead communicated with other Oath Keepers as they forced their way into the building and through the halls of Congress.

While Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell were found not guilty on seditious conspiracy charges, each was found guilty on multiple other felonies that also carry up to 20 years in prison.

All four who faced charges of tampering with evidence — a group that excluded Harrelson — were found guilty.

The five were among nearly a dozen Oath Keepers charged with seditious conspiracy, with four more facing trial in December.

Members of the right-wing Proud Boys are also due in court on seditious conspiracy charges next month, including the group’s leader, Enrique Tarrio, who, like Rhodes, never entered the Capitol and was not present in Washington that day.

Tuesday’s verdict capped a trial that stretched nearly two months, as well as three days of jury deliberations.

The government called more than two dozen witnesses in the case, including law enforcement officials and two Oath Keepers members who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges.

Much of the case centered on a painstaking review of different text messages and Facebook communications among members of the group, with prosecutors repeatedly pointing to the “we” language used to solidify the coordination necessary for the seditious conspiracy charge, which requires “two or more people.”

“They concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler told jurors at the start of the trial.

The history-making verdict comes after the government said the Oath Keepers had bucked a 200-year-old democratic tradition and “banded together to do whatever was necessary, up to and including the use of force” to prevent the peaceful transition of power from former President Trump’s administration to President Biden’s.

The government’s case showed Oath Keepers members undergoing training for the Capitol that day, displaying messages from Watkins that she needed her crew to be “fighting fit.” They also showed video of the group using a military “stack formation” to enter the Capitol, playing footage and displaying messages of them bragging about making it into the building and tangoing with police.

For Rhodes specifically, the government detailed increasingly grave rhetoric following the 2020 election, calling on supporters to take matters into their own hands, offering lessons learned from other civil wars he had studied.

“We are not getting through this without a civil war. Prepare your mind, body and spirit,” he said in the days after the 2020 vote.

Lawyers for Rhodes and the others had argued the group did little to follow up on its threats. They pointed to how the group left its stock of guns, ammo and 30 days of supplies behind in Virginia, where it used a hotel to stage a “quick reaction force,” something they contend was common practice for the group at events.

Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse Tuesday, an attorney for Rhodes said he would likely appeal the verdict.

Updated at 6:19 p.m.

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