WASHINGTON, Nov 29 (Reuters) – Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, and another leader of the right-wing group, were found guilty on Tuesday of seditious conspiracy for the attack on the US Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump, a major justice victory Department.
The verdicts against Rhodes and four co-defendants, after three days of deliberations by the 12-member jury, came in the most high-profile trial yet to emerge from the January 6, 2021, deadly attack on the Capitol, a failed attempt to to undo the electoral defeat of then-President Trump in 2020.
Rhodes, a Yale Law School-educated former army parachutist and disbarred lawyer, was charged by prosecutors with conspiracy to use force to try to stop Congress from winning Democratic President Joe Biden’s election during an eight-week trial on Republican Trump. Rhodes was convicted on three counts and acquitted on two counts.
One of his co-defendants, Kelly Meggs, was also found guilty of seditious conspiracy, while the three others – Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell – were acquitted of that charge.
All five defendants were convicted of obstruction of official proceedings – the congressional certification of the election results – with mixed verdicts on a handful of other charges.
The charges of seditious conspiracy and obstruction of official proceedings each carry up to 20 years in prison.
Two more high-profile trials related to the attack will begin next month. Four other Oath Keepers members are charged with seditious conspiracy, as are members of the right-wing Proud Boys group, including former chairman Enrique Tarrio.
James Lee Bright, a lawyer for Rhodes, said he thinks the verdict will tell how the Justice Department moves forward with the other seditious conspiracy prosecutions.
“The return to this, even if we’re not happy about it, probably speaks to the fact that the DOJ will go full steam ahead in the same way everyone else has,” Bright told reporters out of court.
Rhodes, who wears an eye patch after accidentally shooting himself in the face with his own gun, is one of the most prominent defendants of the approximately 900 suspects in the attack. Meggs, head of the Oath Keepers’ Florida chapter, was the only defendant in this trial besides Rhodes who played a leading role in the organization.
Rhodes founded the Oath Keepers in 2009, a militia group whose members include current and retired U.S. military, law enforcement, and first responders. Its members have appeared, often heavily armed, at protests and political events across the United States, including the racial justice demonstrations following the murder of a black man named George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer.
“The Justice Department is determined to hold accountable those criminally responsible for the attack on our democracy on January 6, 2021,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.
Rhodes’ lawyer Ed Tarpley called the verdicts “a mixed bag”.
“We are grateful for the innocent verdicts that have been received. We are disappointed with the guilty verdicts,” Tarpley told reporters outside of court. “There was no evidence to suggest there was a plan to attack the Capitol.”
Prosecutors said at trial that Rhodes and his co-defendants planned to use force to prevent Congress from formally ratifying Biden’s election victory. Meggs, Watkins, and Harrelson all entered the Capitol in tactical gear.
The defendants were also charged with setting up a “rapid response force” that prosecutors say was positioned at a nearby Virginia hotel and equipped with firearms that could be quickly transported to Washington.
Fifty witnesses testified at the trial, including Rhodes and two of his co-defendants. They denied plotting an attack or trying to stop Congress from certifying the election results, though Watkins admitted obstructing police officers protecting the Capitol.
Rhodes told the jury he had no intention of storming the Capitol and only learned that some of his fellow oath keepers had breached the building after the riot ended.
Prosecutors tried to paint Rhodes as a liar during cross-examination, showing him page after page of his inflammatory text messages, videos, photos and audio recordings. These included Rhodes complaining about not bringing guns to Washington on January 6 and saying he could have hanged US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat reviled by the right.
Watkins, a transgender woman who fled the U.S. military after facing homophobic slurs, and Caldwell, a disabled U.S. Navy veteran, also chose to testify.
Watkins admitted to “criminal liability” for obstructing police officers at the Capitol and issued an apology. At the same time, Watkins denied having any plan to storm the building.
Her attorney, Jonathan Crisp, told reporters he was “grateful” that his client had been cleared of sedition.
Caldwell, who like Rhodes did not enter the Capitol and never formally joined the Oath Keepers, tried to downplay some of the inflammatory texts he sent around the attack. Caldwell said some of the lines were adapted from or inspired by movies like “The Princess Bride” and cartoons like Bugs Bunny.
Lawyers for both Harrelson and Rhodes told reporters after the trial that they planned to appeal the convictions.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, additional reporting by Eric Beech and Costas Pitas; Edited by Scott Malone, Will Dunham and Stephen Coates
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