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Juror safety casts specter over Oath Keepers trial

With the pool of prospective jurors narrowed to 70, a Washington man became the first Thursday to question the personal risk of serving in such a politically charged trial.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Three days of questioning more than 70 jurors culminated Thursday with a federal judge approving a 16-person panel to hear charges in the trial of five Oath Keepers accused of seditious conspiracy in connection with the Capitol riot. 

Nine men and seven women were chosen, four of them to serve as alternates. Among the jurists are a Government Accountability Office employee, a health care consultant, an immigration worker and a legal data analyst. 

The panel for the biggest trial stemming from the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection came together after U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta agreed to dismiss several jurors, including a man who said he would be concerned for his family’s safety if chosen to serve. 

“I worry about how anonymous I actually would be,” the juror explained to U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler after the prosecutor noted the man's previous and ultimately unremarkable jury service in an unrelated trial.

The prospective juror replied that he expects this case to be different because of its high profile.

Though the juror conceded that his safety concerns for himself and his family could be alleviated by measures Nestler described, the Obama-appointed Mehta opted to disqualify him.

In doing so, Mehta noted that the man was the first of approximately 70 prospects to express such fear.

Mehta has noted repeatedly over the past three days of jury selection this week that potential jurors likely know something about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which wound up delaying the certification of the 2020 presidential election results. But what is important, Mehta emphasized, is whether they can set aside their views to remain unbiased at the trial.

The trial, slated to last up to six weeks, involves five individuals accused with orchestrating the insurrection as part of a larger plot to “oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power.” Four members of the Oath Keepers group are facing seditious conspiracy charges, alongside the group's founder, Stewart Rhodes, 57, of Granbury, Texas. The government says the defendants communicated about their plans via encrypted chats, stocked up on weapons and traveled across the country to carry out the attack.

Another prospective juror whom Judge Mehta disqualified on Thursday was a woman who said she would have a hard time considering evidence in an unbiased way because her mind is “already made up” about what happened on Jan. 6. Mehta also struck a man who told the court that he might not be able to put aside his bias over what he described as the “shocking and upsetting” events on Jan. 6.

Rhodes’ alleged co-conspirators standing trial alongside him in Washington are Thomas Caldwell, 68; Kelly Meggs, 53; Kenneth Harrelson, 41 and Jessica Watkins, 40.

A seditious conspiracy charge carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison, and it requires prosecutors to prove to the jury that an actual agreement — to oppose the government by force — existed between the accused Oath Keepers.

Opening arguments are slated to begin Monday.

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