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Jury hears opening arguments in second Capitol riot seditious conspiracy trial

The four people on trial are part of a group of 11 who were indicted earlier this year on seditious conspiracy charges linked to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

WASHINGTON (CN) — A federal jury heard opening arguments on Monday in the trial of four men accused of seditious conspiracy in connection with last year’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

The historic trial comes less than two weeks after the founder of the right-wing militia group Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, and his subordinate, Kelly Meggs, were convicted by a jury of the rare charge, which carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

The four defendants on trial this week — Edward VallejoRoberto MinutaDavid Moerschel and Joseph Hackett — were indicted alongside Rhodes, Meggs and five others in January. The 11 defendants were set to be tried together, but logistics issues and plea agreements from indicted members — Joshua James and Brian Ulrich — resulted in two separate trials.

During opening arguments on Monday, U.S. Attorney Troy Edwards urged jurors to consider that Americans “put a lot of energy into elections.”

The simple but sacred election process that has been fundamental to U.S. democracy was shaken when the four defendants, Edwards said, tried to take a presidential election “into their own hands" on Jan. 6, 2021.

“They tried to stop that presidential transfer of power by force for the first time in our government’s history,” he said.

Congress is required by the Constitution to meet to count electoral ballots and declare a presidential winner, he said, but on the day they were supposed to do so, Jan. 6, 2021, he said “these defendants halted the transition of presidential power.”

The government’s indictment accuses the members of the loosely organized antigovernment militia of planning to “stop the lawful transfer of presidential power by Jan. 20, 2021.” They allegedly communicated about the plan through encrypted chats, stocked up on weapons and ultimately traveled across the country to “oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power” on Jan. 6, 2021.

They staged an arsenal of weapons at a hotel across the Potomac River in Virginia and were ready to rush them into Washington on Jan. 6, he said, adding that they used brute force strength to attack the Capitol building that day.

“These defendants agreed to, and joined together, to stop the presidential transfer of power,” he said. “And they were ready to do it with force and … they did.”

Evidence from witnesses, photos, videos, messages and audio recordings, he said, will show that between November 2020 and January 2021 they came to an agreement to oppose the government by force.

“And that agreement — as it crystallized in the defendants’ actions on Jan. 6 — violated multiple criminal laws,” he said.

Defense attorneys meanwhile tried to distance their clients from each other and their alleged co-conspirators, insisting prosecutors had a rush to judgment in the aftermath of the Capitol riot.

Angela Halim, who represents defendant Joseph Hackett, told the jury that the 52-year-old Sarasota, Florida, resident did not know any of his co-defendants until they were seated together in court during jury selection last week.

And Scott Weinberg, who represents defendant David Moerschel, said Rhodes was looking out for himself but never had a plan to oppose the U.S. government, to obstruct Congress, “or any of the things the government is accusing my client of.”

Defendants Hackett and Moerschel are accused of breaching the Capitol with other Oath Keepers in a military-style “stack” formation.

Defense attorney Matthew Peed, who represents defendant Edward Vallejo, told the jury that his 64-year-old client is “unlike anyone else at this table” because he never went inside the Capitol on Jan. 6 and had not met his alleged co-conspirators until the first day of jury selection.

Prosecutors say Vallejo was allegedly on standby at the Comfort Inn Ballston in nearby Arlington, Virginia, monitoring the group’s communications and awaiting Rhodes’ call-to-action to transport weapons into Washington.

Defense attorneys for defendant Roberto Minuta, of Hackettstown, New Jersey, opted not to deliver opening arguments on Monday. Minuta is accused of breaching the Capitol building in a second stack of Oath Keepers members about 35 minutes after the first stack entered. Minuta was Rhodes’ New York chapter leader and he was filled with rage about the election, prosecutors said.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, who presided over Rhodes’ trial, said he expects proceedings in the current trial to run through Dec. 22 and to resume on Dec. 27 after the court's holiday break.

Jury selection began last Tuesday and lasted four days, one day longer than the selection process in Rhodes’ trial.

Defense attorneys took issue during the jury selection process with a prospective jurist who said one of his college professors was Representative Jamie Raskin, the Maryland Democrat who serves on the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. And a woman who described Jan. 6 as a “remarkably violent” day received pushback as well.

In less than two weeks, U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump appointee, will preside over a third seditious conspiracy trial at the Washington federal courthouse. Five members of another right-wing group, the Proud Boys, are set to go to trial on Dec. 19. That same week, the House committee investigating the Capitol insurrection is expected to release its final report following a series of public hearings this year.

To date, the government has charged more than 880 people in connection with the Capitol riot. As of Nov. 6, about 337 people have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and about 110 have pleaded guilty to felonies. Approximately 173 people have been sentenced to prison time.

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