Oath Keepers trial: What to know as jury deliberations begin
In the seditious conspiracy case against Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and four other individuals in connection with the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, a Washington, D.C., jury started deliberations on Tuesday.
In addition to several other charges, Rhodes and his alleged accomplices are accused of plotting to forcibly resist the certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory in order to obstruct the peaceful transfer of power.
Rhodes says that his group’s sole goal was to offer security and medical assistance to individuals attending several pro-Trump rallies taking place throughout the city; he refrained from entering the U.S. Capitol on that particular day.
In order to prove their case, the prosecution has spent months compiling evidence of the defendants’ claimed discussions, communications, and acts before to the events of January 6 as well as their alleged subsequent attempts to conceal their criminal activities.
Following the 2020 election, Rhodes, a Yale Law School alumnus who created the Oath Keepers militia in 2009, allegedly emailed members of the group increasingly anxious communications about the necessity of being ready to stop Biden from assuming president.
In a message sent on November 5 that was made public by the prosecution, Rhodes warned that “a civil war” was not possible to avoid.
Rhodes took the unusual step of testifying on his own behalf during the trial, telling the judge he still thinks the 2020 election was fraudulent, citing the baseless premise that voting restrictions imposed by pandemic safety measures were unconstitutional.
Prosecutors assert that Rhodes rallied his warriors, many of whom were former members of law enforcement and the military, between Nov. 8 and Jan. 6, relying on FBI testimony, and spent thousands of dollars on guns and equipment as he journeyed across the nation toward Washington.
According to the prosecution, Rhodes warned his fellow Oath Keepers in a communication on December 11 that “it will be a violent and desperate conflict.” “There will be a struggle between us. That is unavoidable.
The accusations include assisting and abetting, seditious conspiracy, and hindering government.
Prosecutors spent countless hours in the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., trying to meet the high standard of demonstrating to the jury that the five defendants, Thomas Caldwell, Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson, and Kelly Meggs, conspired to obstruct the administration of laws governing the transfer of presidential power.
With information they claim demonstrates Rhodes and his colleagues would continue preparations to interfere with government operations after Jan. 6, the government attempted to prevent innocent explanations for the defendant’s behavior.
In a message provided by the government, suspected co-conspirator Meggs stated, “We aren’t quitting” on the evening of January 6. “We’re loading again.”
After January 6, Rhodes continued to write about a bloody revolution and spent hundreds of dollars for weapons and related supplies, according to government-provided records.
They might spend up to 20 years in prison if found guilty of the seditious conspiracy allegation, but all five of the defendants are also accused of a number of additional charges that could result in lengthy prison terms.
Jessica Watkins, an alleged Oath Keeper co-conspirator, admitted guilt and expressed regret for some of the actions she took inside the Capitol on January 6 despite taking credit for the assault and referring to it as a “patriot movement” on social media after the fact, according to testimony given last week.
Watkins found herself in the thick of a crowd, squished into a hallway leading deeper into the Capitol building after navigating the crowd at the huge double doors on the eastern side of the Capitol building, which she compared to being at a Black Friday sale. Officer Christopher Owens of the Metropolitan Police Department, who had already testified in the case, was at the opposite end of the corridor with other cops actively preventing the crowd from moving further.
Watkins acknowledged screaming “push!” in court, but she now regrets it and said she didn’t grasp what was going on up front.
Watkins declared, “I accept full responsibility for what transpired in this corridor. I am aware that doing so puts me at risk of prosecution. I understand that I’ll be charged for it.
The police eventually held the line, but Watkins and others stayed inside the Capitol until she went to assist in carrying out a person who had been pepper sprayed in the face.
Watkins said he felt “excited” when he arrived at the capitol. She can be seen smoking something the size of a pen on Capitol security camera footage even after the incident in the hallway. She admitted to smoking marijuana within the structure to the FBI later.
Watkins remarked that it “felt like a momentous moment.” We were making history, so I failed to realize that we were also breaking the law by entering one of the world’s most secure structures.
However, the prosecution came back to Watkins’ political views, particularly as they related to the 2020 election, implying that she and her alleged accomplices may have felt threatened by Biden’s victory.
Watkins stated that she was more concerned about what might occur “after the inauguration” and that “the election itself wasn’t a threat.”
The conspiracy theorist’s rants and interviews, which Watkins claimed she consumed on a “steady diet of InfoWars and Alex Jones” in the months leading up to January 6, allegedly shaped her outlook on the world and her suspicions about the government.
Around the time of the 2020 election, Watkins became concerned about a number of conspiracy theories that were popularized in far-right communities. She stated during her testimony that she started to worry about the United Nations sending a team to Washington, D.C., to make sure Joe Biden won the election, then removing American citizens’ guns forcibly, requiring COVID-19 immunizations, and possibly permitting a Chinese invasion from Canada.
Watkins said to the court, “I feel like I was gullible in retrospect.”
The defendants claim that their presence was for security.
Defense lawyers have argued that prosecutors are cherry-picking texts and discussions to portray the group’s goals as seditious in order to refute the government’s claims that it ever plotted to interfere with the Electoral College’s certification.
They have also vehemently refuted the government’s account of the so-called “Quick Reaction Force” of heavily armed Oath Keepers members stationed at a hotel just outside the city on January 6, which prosecutors claim was part of a plan to possibly use force to stop Donald Trump from being removed from office.
Defense lawyers point out that the government has never claimed that any of the weapons at the hotel were smuggled into Washington, D.C., on January 6 or after that date, and that Rhodes never requested their arrival in the Capitol during the violence. Despite acknowledging advising members who choose to bring their firearms to keep them out of Washington, Rhodes denied in his own testimony knowing anything about the particulars of the so-called Virginia QRF.
In his public and private pleadings to have Trump call out the militia by using the Insurrection Act, Rhodes, in particular, has heavily leaned into his claim that he was never advocating for anything illegal.
Regardless of their clients’ extreme right-wing political views, defense attorneys tried to blur the distinction that prosecutors made between the election and the Capitol siege.
James Bright, Stewart Rhodes’ lawyer, acknowledged that statements were made. “The language was vehement. very agitated language. Bombast. Inappropriate.”
Bright, though, argued that none of this chatter represented a plot to halt formal government operations on January 6.
Stanley Woodward, Kelly Meggs’ attorney, argued that any coordination done concerned providing protection to VIPs who were speaking at events that day in an effort to disprove the notion that the defendants worked together on January 6.
Woodward stated, “We don’t take the events of January 6 lightly, but we do take issue with the government’s portrayal of what occurred that day.
Bright and Woodward both denounced the violence and destruction that took place on January 6 in and around the Capitol while claiming that it was not their customers’ fault.
Meggs and other Oath Keepers may be seen in security camera footage from inside the Capitol entering double doors on the eastern side of the structure after rioters pushed them open. The Oath Keepers can be seen moving through the crowd in video taken from the outside, but they don’t reach the front before making their way inside.
Brad Geyer, the defense attorney for Harrelson, focused his closing arguments on the government’s video evidence, which showed rioters on the eastern steps of the Capitol singing the national anthem as police were being attacked with chemical spray and the defendants were further behind, making their way up the steps through the throng of people.
Geyer repeatedly reiterated during closing arguments, quoting an iconic phrase from the O.J. Simpson murder trial, “If the video doesn’t fit you must acquit.”
Before Harrelson and the other defendants reached the Oath Keepers and the rioters, Geyer called the jury’s attention to a section of the crowd that was in front of them. Harrelson arrived and remained there for almost 20 minutes before leaving.
For 17 minutes, “they want you to turn this man’s life upside down,” Geyer added. The ridiculousness is mind-boggling.
Seditious conspiracy: what is it?
The jury was given a clear path to follow by the prosecution, which defined seditious conspiracy in words the jury could understand, i.e., an agreement to violently resist the government. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy stated last week that there is no requirement for a specific start or end date and that all defendants did not have to join the conspiracy at the same time.
Following the Civil War, the rarely-used seditious conspiracy Act was enacted with the intention of convicting Southerners who might still have desired to rebel against the government.
Since 2010, when prosecutors charged six Michigan individuals and Hutaree militia members with conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government with force, the Justice Department has not sought seditious conspiracy charges. But a judge found that prosecutors had based too much of their case on words that were First Amendment protected speech, leading to the defendants’ unanimous acquittal.
In 1995, a jury found an Egyptian cleric and his supporters guilty of conspiring to attack the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, and a structure housing an FBI office. This was the final successful seditious conspiracy conviction.
The Oath Keepers are currently on trial, but they are not accused of plotting to overthrow the American government; rather, according to the prosecution, their actions fall under the provisions of the seditious conspiracy statute that relate to plotting to subvert the authority of the government and obstructing the law’s enforcement.