WASHINGTON, Nov 29 (Reuters) – Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and another leader of the right-wing group were convicted on Tuesday of seditious conspiracy to attack the U.S. Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump , an important victory for justice. Department.
The verdicts against Rhodes and four co-accusedafter three days of deliberations by the 12-member jury, came in the most high-profile trial yet to emerge from the deadly January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol, a failed attempt to to spill the electoral defeat of President Trump in 2020.
Rhodes, a Yale Law School-trained former Army paratrooper and disbarred attorney, was charged by prosecutors during an eight-week trial with conspiring to use force to try to prevent the Congress to certify Democratic President Joe Biden’s electoral victory over Republican Trump. Rhodes was convicted on three counts and acquitted on two.
One of his co-defendants, Kelly Meggs, was also found guilty of seditious conspiracy while the other three – Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell – were acquitted of that charge.
The five defendants were found guilty of obstructing official process – congressional certification of election results – with mixed verdicts on a handful of other charges.
The charges of seditious conspiracy and obstruction of official process each carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Two other high-profile trials related to the attack are due to begin next month. Four other members of Oath Keepers face charges of seditious conspiracy, as do members of the right-wing group Proud Boys, including its former president Enrique Tarrio.
James Lee Bright, a Rhodes attorney, said he believed the verdict would inform how the Justice Department proceeds in other seditious conspiracy prosecutions.
“Returning to this case, although we’re not happy with it, is probably a testament to the fact that the DOJ is going to move forward the same way for everyone else,” Bright told reporters outside the court.
Rhodes, who wears an eye patch after accidentally shooting himself in the face with his own pistol, is one of the most important defendants of the roughly 900 defendants in the attack. Meggs, who heads the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers, was the only defendant besides Rhodes in that lawsuit who played a prominent role in the organization.
Rhodes founded the Oath Keepers in 2009, a militia whose members include current and retired US military personnel, law enforcement officers and first responders. Its members have shown up, often heavily armed, at protests and political events across the United States, including the racial justice protests following the killing of a black man named George Floyd by a white police officer from Minneapolis.
“The Department of Justice is committed to holding accountable those criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy on January 6, 2021,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.
Rhodes attorney Ed Tarpley called the verdicts a “mixed bag”.
“We are grateful for the not guilty verdicts received. We are disappointed with the guilty verdicts,” Tarpley told reporters outside the court. “No evidence has been presented to indicate there was a plan to attack the Capitol.”
Prosecutors during the trial said Rhodes and his co-defendants planned to use force to prevent Congress from officially certifying Biden’s election victory. Meggs, Watkins and Harrelson all entered the Capitol dressed in tactical gear.
The defendants were also accused of creating a “rapid reaction force” which prosecutors say was positioned at a nearby hotel in Virginia and was equipped with firearms that could be quickly transported to Washington.
Fifty witnesses testified during the trial, including Rhodes and two of his co-defendants. They denied plotting an attack or seeking to prevent Congress from certifying the election results, although Watkins admitted to getting in the way of police guarding the Capitol.
Rhodes told the jury that he had no intention of storming the Capitol and did not learn that some of his fellow oath keepers had entered the building until after the riot was over.
During cross-examination, prosecutors sought to portray Rhodes as a liar, showing him page after page of his inflammatory text messages, videos, photos and audio recordings. Among them is Rhodes lamenting not bringing guns to Washington on Jan. 6 and saying he could have hanged Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat reviled by the right.
Watkins, a transgender woman who fled the US military after facing homophobic slurs, and Caldwell, a disabled US Navy veteran, also chose to testify.
Watkins admitted to having “criminal liability” for obstructing police officers inside the Capitol and apologized. At the same time, Watkins denied plans to storm the building, describing being ‘blown away’ just as eager shoppers behave on ‘Black Friday’ when they rush into stores to buy gifts discounted vacation rentals such as televisions.
His lawyer, Jonathan Crisp, told reporters he was “grateful” that his client had been acquitted of sedition.
Caldwell, who like Rhodes did not enter the Capitol building and never officially joined the Oath Keepers, tried to play down some of the inflammatory texts he sent around the attack. Caldwell said some of the lines were adapted or inspired by films such as “The Princess Bride” and cartoons such as Bugs Bunny.
Lawyers for Harrelson and Rhodes told reporters after the trial that they intended to appeal the convictions.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, additional reporting by Eric Beech and Costas Pitas; Editing by Scott Malone, Will Dunham and Stephen Coates
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