WASHINGTON (AP) — Four members of the Oath Keepers were convicted Monday of seditious conspiracy in the January 6, 2021 Capitol bombing in the second major trial of far-right extremists charged with plotting to keep President Donald Trump in power by force.
The verdict against Joseph Hackett of Sarasota, Florida; Roberto Minuta of Prosper, Texas; David Moerschel of Punta Gorda, Florida; and Edward Vallejo of Phoenix comes weeks after another jury convicted the group’s leader, Stewart Rhodes, of mob attack which halted the certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory.
It’s another big win for the Justice Department, which is also trying to secure sedition convictions against the former leader of the Proud Boys and four associates. The trial of Enrique Tarrio and his lieutenants opened in Washington earlier this month and is expected to last several weeks.
The Washington jury deliberated about 12 hours over three days before reaching their guilty verdict on the rarely used charge, which carries up to 20 years in prison. The four were also convicted of two other charges of conspiracy and obstruction of official proceedings: Congressional certification of the 2020 election. Minuta, Hackett and Moerschel were acquitted of lesser charges.
The judge did not immediately set a date for sentencing. The judge denied prosecutors’ request to detain the men pending sentencing, arguing that they were not at risk of fleeing. They were ordered to remain under house arrest with electronic surveillance.
It was one of the most serious cases brought to date in the sweeping Jan. 6 investigation, which continues to grow two years after the riot.. The Justice Department has charged nearly 1,000 people over the riots and the number is rising by the week.
Attorney General Merrick Garland told reporters after the verdict that he is “grateful to the prosecutors, officers and staff for their outstanding work.”
Oath Keepers leader Rhodes and Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs were convicted of seditious conspiracy in the previous trial that ended in November. They were the first people in decades to be found guilty of the Civil War-era charge at trial. Three other Oath Keepers were acquitted of the charges in that case, but were found guilty of other serious crimes. They are all waiting for their sentencing.
Lawyers for Moerschel and Minuta suggested after the verdict that their clients were hurt because they could not stand next to Rhodes because the judge split the case into two groups. Moerchel’s attorney, Scott Weinberg, said he could have pinpointed Rhodes as the “real bad guy.”
“I think it would be easier to be a low level person on the same thing as Stewart Rhodes, who is actually the figurehead of this organization,” Weinberg said.
William Shipley Jr., Minuta’s attorney, said he was disappointed and “somewhat surprised” by the verdict. He said the government’s witnesses did not stand up to scrutiny and that there were gaps in the evidence presented.
“We didn’t really think the government was having a really good day in the 15 days of testimonials,” said Shipley.
Vallejo left the courthouse without speaking to reporters. Joseph Hackett’s attorney, Angela Halim, declined to comment after the verdict.
“We got a trial by residents of a small judicial district who were almost all affected in one way or another by the events of January 6,” Shipley said. “I think that raises some really troubling issues.
Prosecutors told jurors that shortly after the 2020 election, Rhodes and his band of extremists began preparing an armed uprising to keep Trump in power. Reports show Rhodes and the Oath Keepers discussing the prospect of a “bloody” civil war and the need to keep Biden out of the White House.
“Our democracy was under attack, but for the defendants it was everything they had trained for and a moment to celebrate,” prosecutor Louis Manzo told the jurors in his closing argument.
Prosecutors alleged that the Oath Keepers collected weapons and stashed them in a Virginia hotel for so-called “quick reaction force” teams who could quickly ship weapons to Washington to support their plot if they were needed. The weapons were never used.
Defense attorneys tried to play down reports of violence as mere gaffe, saying the Oath Keepers came to Washington to provide security at pre-riot events. Taking advantage of the prosecutors’ lack of evidence that the Oath Keepers had an explicit plan to storm the Capitol before January 6, they told the jurors that the extremists who attacked the Capitol acted spontaneously like thousands of other rioters.
“They left out evidence and picked and chose what they wanted,” said William Lee Shipley, a Minuta lawyer.
Prosecutors argued that while there is no evidence specifically describing a plan to attack the Capitol, the Oath Keepers saw the riot as a means to an end and sprang into action in an apparent opportunity to put Trump in power hold.
Hackett, Moerschel and other Oath Keepers approached the Capitol in a military style before entering the building, prosecutors said. According to court documents, Minuta and his group of a second batch of Oath Keepers clashed with police after heeding Rhodes’ call to race to the Capitol.
Prosecutors said Vallejo, a US Army veteran and ally of Rhodes, drove from Arizona to prepare with the “QRF” — the rapid response force — at the hotel outside Washington. Jurors heard an audio recording of Vallejo talking about a “declaration of a guerrilla war” on the morning of January 6.
Three other Oath Keepers have pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy and have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in hopes of a lighter sentence. They are among approximately 500 people who have pleaded guilty to rioting charges.
Richer reported from Boston. Associated Press reporters Lindsay Whitehurst and Andrew Harnik contributed from Washington.
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