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Judge ‘regrettably’ orders new delay in Oath Keepers trial

The trial was already expected to last up to six weeks, and the latest delay may stretch that timeline.

WASHINGTON (CN) — One Covid diagnosis and an unspecified health issue for an attorney led a federal judge to put off further proceedings in the trial for five members of the Oath Keepers militia charged with seditious conspiracy in connection to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, an Obama appointee, told jurors on Wednesday that the government witness testimony they had just heard would be the last this week.

“We’ve gone as far as we can in terms of presentation of evidence,” he said, explaining that the trial cannot resume until Monday, at the earliest, when defendant Stewart Rhodes and defense lawyer Stanley Woodward are expected to return.

Since testing positive on Sunday for Covid-19, Rhodes, who is the leader of the Oath Keepers group, has been kept in isolation at the Virginia detention center where he has been detained since his January 2022 arrest. Woodward represents one of Rhodes' co-defendants, Kelly Meggs, but has been absent since the beginning of this week after telling the judge he was in the hospital for an unspecified health issue.

Woodward is expected to return Monday, his co-counsel Juli Haller informed the court, persuading Judge Mehta that witness testimony should be delayed until such time as it was Woodward who prepared for witness cross-examination.

“Some things happened, and we can’t plan for them,” Judge Mehta told the jury, “and regrettably it’s delaying the presentation of evidence.”

Judge Mehta also sent jurors home early this past Monday upon learning about Rhodes’ health status. Covid protocols at the Alexandria Detention Center require Rhodes to stay in isolation for 10 days, but the trial was able to resume Tuesday after Rhodes opted to sit out the testimony from cooperating government witnesses whom he deemed inconsequential to his case.

It was initially estimated that the federal trial in Washington would take up to six weeks, but the second trial delay in as many days could add extra time.

One juror was dismissed last week after testing positive for the virus. And another is set to move to Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 18.

“We are hopeful … to restart Monday,” Judge Mehta said, adding that an early dismissal that day “will depend on Mr. Rhodes’ availability.”

The judge instructed jurors to look out for a text from a court staffer on Sunday with an update on whether to come into court the next day.

If all goes as planned, the government is expected to call U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn to the witness stand on Monday.

Defense attorneys have been trying to establish over the last two weeks of trial that photos and videos of Meggs, Harrelson and three fellow Oath Keepers standing with their backs to Officer Dunn inside the Capitol on Jan. 6 are proof that they were shielding him from protestors.

On Tuesday, a defense attorney asked a former FBI special agent about the scene and whether the Oath Keepers were “intervening on his behalf.” But the witness said she could not determine from the video alone what the “nature of their interaction” was.

Last week, the Oath Keepers member who snapped the photo testified that they were “protecting this officer from protesters,” and that he heard Harrelson say at one point, “we are not here to hurt you.”

Before the early adjournment of proceedings on Wednesday, jurors heard testimony from Christopher Owens, a Metropolitan Police Department officer, about the chaotic scene he observed inside the Capitol building during the insurrection as rioters violently stormed the East Rotunda.

Rioters were punching, kicking and swinging flagpoles at him and his fellow officers who had formed a police line to try to stop them from progressing further into the Capitol toward the doors to the Senate Chamber.

At one point, Officer Owens said the surge of rioters “lifted me up off my feet.”

“I was literally just lifted up off the ground,” he told the jury, “and I realized this was a surreal situation for all of us.”

Rhodes, 56, and four affiliates of his right-wing Oath Keepers group are accused of orchestrating the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2020, as part of a larger plot to “oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power.”

The four alleged co-conspirators standing trial alongside him are Meggs, 53; Thomas Caldwell, 68; Kenneth Harrelson, 41 and Jessica Watkins, 40. 

Prosecutors have brought counts for seditious conspiracy, saying the defendants communicated about their plans via encrypted chats, stocked up on weapons and traveled across the country to carry out the attack that delayed the ceremony Congress scheduled to certify the 2020 election results.

A seditious conspiracy charge carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison. It requires prosecutors to prove to the jury that the accused Oath Keepers had an actual agreement to "overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force" the U.S. government.  

The Justice Department so far has charged more than 880 people in connection with the Capitol riot. As of Oct. 6, about 313 people have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, about 99 have pleaded guilty to felonies. Approximately 152 people have been sentenced to prison time.

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