(WASHINGTON) — The leader of the far-right Oath Keepers group on Tuesday was found guilty of conspiring against the federal government as part of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — a major conviction in prosecutors’ ongoing cases against the rioters that day.
Stewart Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate-turned-militiaman, was convicted of his most serious charge, seditious conspiracy, following a sprawling two-month trial in federal court in Washington and three days of jury deliberations.
An associate, Kelly Meggs, was also found guilty of seditious conspiracy in the first such convictions by a jury since 1995. They could both face a maximum of 20 years in prison for that charge alone.
Meggs and Rhodes, along with three others connected to the Oath Keepers, who were all tried together, were each convicted on some but notably not all of their charges — indicating jurors rejected some of the prosecutions’ arguments. Three of the five were acquitted of seditious conspiracy.
Defense attorneys vowed on Tuesday to appeal.
The accused were charged with disrupting the peaceful transfer of power by conspiring to oppose by force the certification of President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory on Jan. 6, 2021, among other felonies.
All five defendants — Meggs, Rhodes, Thomas Caldwell, Kenneth Harrelson and Jessica Watkins, three of whom testified in their own defense — were found guilty of obstructing an official proceeding: in this case, the certification of Biden’s election.
Caldwell, whose only other guilty verdict was tampering with potential evidence, will remain on supervised release despite the government’s request to have him jailed pending any appeal or sentencing. Caldwell was acquitted on seditious conspiracy, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding and conspiring to impede a U.S. official. During testimony, he said he was not a member of the Oath Keepers, despite his association with the group.
Meggs, Harrelson and Watkins were all acquitted on charges that they damaged government property. That finding by the jury suggests defense lawyers were successful in showing how the defendants were not among the first lines of rioters to break through barriers and enter the Capitol last year.
Watkins and Meggs were both found guilty of conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding in addition to actual obstruction. In arguing those charges, prosecutors relied on group texts and social media posts written before and after Jan. 6.
“We PATRIOTS took the Capitol…” Watkins wrote on the website Parler. “I stormed into the capitol in full battle rattle… stop the steal.”
What is seditious conspiracy?
The rarely-used seditious conspiracy statute was signed into law following the Civil War with the aim of prosecuting Southerners who may still want to fight against the government.
In the Oath Keepers trial, the defendants were not charged with seeking to overthrow the U.S. government — rather, prosecutors argued their conduct fell within the portion of the statute related to conspiring to oppose the government’s authority and forcibly block the execution of laws.
The Justice Department hasn’t brought seditious conspiracy charges since 2010, when prosecutors indicted several Michigan residents and members of the Hutaree militia with conspiring to oppose by force the authority of the U.S. government. But the defendants were all acquitted after a judge determined that prosecutors had hinged too much of their case on statements that were First Amendment protected speech.
Rhodes himself did not enter the Capitol on Jan. 6 and maintained that his group only intended to provide security and medical aid to those attending multiple pro-Donald Trump demonstrations in the area.
Prosecutors spent months piecing together their case ahead of trial, documenting the conversations, messages and actions of the defendants leading up to their involvement with the insurrection and their alleged efforts to cover up their activity afterward.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler said in court last week that the defendants who testified were lying about several pieces of evidence such as Caldwell’s description of a video showing protesters confronting Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham at an airport after Jan. 6.
Caldwell had said he thought they were confronting Graham about confirming judges, not certifying the 2020 election.
Nestler rejected the explanation from the defense that Oath Keepers had come to Washington to provide protection for people on Jan. 6. The defense made no mention of anyone specific whom the Oath Keepers were providing security for, he noted.
“Why lie about a fact?” Nestler asked rhetorically. “The answer: because the truth is so damning.”
Breaking down the specific verdicts in Oath Keepers trial
Jurors had to weigh dozens of charges at trial and found each of the five defendants guilty of some crimes and not guilty of others.
In addition to seditious conspiracy, Rhodes was also found guilty of obstruction of an official proceeding and of tampering with documents/aiding and abetting. He was found not guilty of conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding and conspiracy to prevent an officer from discharging duties.
In addition to seditious conspiracy Meggs was also found guilty of conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding, of obstructing an official proceeding, of conspiring to prevent an officer from discharging duties and of tampering with documents. Meggs was found not guilty of destruction of government property/aiding and abetting.
Harrelson was found guilty of obstructing an official proceeding, of conspiring to prevent an officer from discharging duties and of tampering with documents. In addition to the seditious conspiracy acquittal, Harrelson was found not guilty of conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding and destruction of government property.
Watkins was found guilty of conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding, obstructing an official proceeding, conspiring to prevent an officer from discharging duties and civil disorder. In addition to the seditious conspiracy acquittal, Watkins was found not guilty of destruction of government property/aiding and abetting.
Caldwell was found guilty of obstructing an official proceeding and of tampering with documents but not guilty of seditious conspiracy, conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding and conspiring to prevent an officer from discharging duties.
Rhodes, who founded the anti-government Oath Keepers in 2009, sent increasingly frantic messages to members of the group following the 2020 election about their need to be prepared to prevent Biden from taking office.
Using a massive and sometime strikingly candid cache of phone records, messages and recordings as evidence, prosecutors attempted to tie the defendants’ far-right political beliefs with a desire to forcibly oppose the certification of Biden’s election.
“We aren’t getting through this without a civil war,” Rhodes said in a Nov. 5 message presented by prosecutors.
The defense argued that no plot to disrupt government proceedings ever materialized among the group and their discussions of violence were largely rhetorical and were not taken seriously.
“Yes, things were said,” Rhodes’ attorney James Bright said. “It was heated rhetoric. Horribly heated rhetoric. Bombast. Inappropriate.”
At the same time, the defendants said they came to Washington to provide security because they feared violence from far-left groups at the pro-Trump events held on Jan. 6, 2021. Three of the defendants — Caldwell, Watkins and Rhodes — all opted to take the witness stand.
During cross-examination and throughout the trial, prosecutors displayed evidence to undermine their credibility and used messages and social media posts that appeared to contradict their innocent explanations. At one point, Meggs said he wanted to “go on a killing spree” and first target House Speaker Nancy Pelosi following the 2020 election.
Rhodes, in taking the rare step of testifying on his own behalf during the trial, told the court he continues to believe that the 2020 election was unconstitutional because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions implemented by states to make voting more accessible.
Relying on testimony from the FBI, prosecutors said that Rhodes worked between the 2020 election and Jan. 6 to rally his troops — many of them former law enforcement and military service members — and purchased thousands of dollars worth of weapons as he traveled across the country toward Washington.
“It will be a bloody and desperate fight,” Rhodes wrote in a Dec. 11, 2020, message to other Oath Keepers. “We are going to have a fight. That can’t be avoided.”
The group’s preparations for violence occurred over messages and in person, with Rhodes and his associates attending a series of demonstrations and events in 2020 where, prosecutors said, they claimed to act as security.
“We will have to do a bloody, massively bloody revolution against them,” Rhodes allegedly told a regional Oath Keepers leader in December 2020. “That’s what’s going to happen.”
In his testimony from the witness stand, however, Rhodes sought to paint a far different picture of the Oath Keepers — describing them as a community service organization that helped veterans transition into civilian life. He said the group’s actions, like purposely storing their weapons outside the Washington city limits on Jan. 6, showed they never intended to violate the law.
And he sought to distance himself from members of the group who entered the Capitol building, saying those people went “off-mission” and that he never would have ordered anyone to storm the halls of Congress.
Rhodes acknowledged under questioning from his attorney that in the weeks leading up to and after Jan. 6 he wanted President Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act and essentially mobilize his militia’s members to prevent him from being removed as president. But, Rhodes said, he never believed he was asking Trump to do something that was unlawful and that he believed that Trump could use the Insurrection Act to overrule states who had changed their voting procedures over the pandemic.
Who are the other defendants
Watkins is a veteran and former EMT who was running a bar in Ohio around the time of Jan. 6 and had started a militia group of her own before joining with the Oath Keepers.
Watkins’ fiancé, Montana Siniff, testified on her behalf as the first witness called by the defense.
Siniff testified that he and Watkins had met at a comic book shop in 2015. When he asked her out on a date about a year later, she “blurted out” that she was transgender and they started dating. The pair started their own militia group prior to joining the Oath Keepers and, Siniff said, originally intended the group to serve in response to natural disasters.
The government alleged that Watkins was part of one of the “stacks” or organized strike teams that set out to breach the Capitol on Jan. 6. According to one message presented by the government, Watkins told her fiancé she had in fact “stormed the capitol” and had “forced” her way in with others. Video evidence also shows Watkins inside the Capitol that day yelling at law enforcement who were trying to control the mob.
Meggs is seen in videos as part of the military-style “stack” of Oath Keepers that entered through the east side of the Capitol on Jan. 6. Prosecutors alleged he and other members of the stack, including Watkins and Harrelson, were specifically seeking out Pelosi after they breached the Capitol but left the building after they couldn’t find her.
“[W]as hoping to see Nancy’s head rolling down the front steps,” an associate of Meggs texted to him a little after 7 o’clock the night of Jan. 6.
“We looked [for] her,” Meggs responded.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta previously cited that text from Meggs in an order last year denying Meggs’ request to be released from pre-trial detention, arguing it spoke to Meggs’ ongoing danger to the general public.
Defense attorney Brad Geyer cast his client, Harrelson, as an apolitical public servant who wanted to use his experience from the military to help others. Geyer emphasized that Harrelson had been off social media since 2014 and hadn’t engaged in the same online vitriol that others had fanned.
“He had no political objectives that day,” Geyer contended. “That’s what the evidence will show.”
Harrelson was accused of helping to amass firearms in a Virginia hotel as part of a so-called “quick reaction force” in anticipation of violence on Jan. 6.
Geyer said that Harrelson had never voted in a presidential election and did not know what the Electoral College was or how Congress worked.
The defense attorneys also vigorously disputed the government’s narrative about the “quick reaction force,” noting that at no point did the government allege that any of the firearms at the hotel were brought into Washington on Jan. 6 or afterward and that Rhodes never called on such weapons to come to the Capitol in the midst of the riot.
In his own testimony, Rhodes denied having any knowledge about the specifics of the munitions.
Like Rhodes, Caldwell took the witness stand to defend himself against the conspiracy and related charges he faced.
Although at one point he said he was “allied” with members of the Oath Keepers, Caldwell subsequently tried to disassociate himself with the militia group, testifying that while he was friendly with the members, he was not one himself.
Caldwell portrayed himself as an innocent elderly man with a big mouth, repeatedly noting that his protracted spinal injuries from his time in the military made it difficult for him to walk around Washington on Jan. 6.
“I’m a walking disaster,” he said of his injuries. He also had hip replacement surgery earlier this year.
While he was not accused of entering the Capitol, Caldwell and his wife acknowledged they did walk up steps on the west front of the building — as part of a large group — to the exterior balcony constructed for the presidential inauguration.
Four other members of the Oath Keepers charged with seditious conspiracy are slated to go to trial later this month. Three members of the group have previously pleaded guilty to the charge of seditious conspiracy and entered into cooperation agreements with the federal government but, notably, did not testify at this trial.
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