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Lawyers for 5 Oath Keepers wary of jury bias ahead of seditious conspiracy trial

A judge underlined repeatedly that the trial of five members of the Oath Keepers does not mean that the right-wing extremist group is itself on trial.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Just because a potential juror is educated and follows the news is not grounds to strike, a federal judge said Tuesday, rejecting defense objections as the court worked to empanel a jury that will hear charges against five members of the Oath Keepers over last year's Capitol riot.

Defense attorneys took issue this afternoon with a prospective juror who said he watched the Jan. 6 riot on a livestream while chatting with friends in government services.

The prospective juror recalled a "sense of fear and chaos" amongst congressional staff as the attack on the U.S. Capitol unfolded. Now on the precipice of serving on the jury in one of the most anticipated trials to arise from the insurrection, the man said he had been wrestling in recent weeks with his potential bias, given his concerns back on Jan. 6 for two friends employed by the House who might have been at the Capitol during the riot.

When U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta asked the man to make a final decision as to the potential impact of bias, the man said he can remain impartial because his duty as a juror would be to look at the evidence the way it is presented.

An attorney for the Oath Keepers called it “pretty evident” that the juror wanted to be picked because he tried to answer questions fairly for the government. But the prosecutor disagreed, telling the judge it sounds like the prospective juror, who has two master’s degrees, was just “being careful” in answering the questions.

Judge Mehta described it as a "close call," but said he would defer to the juror’s own repeated statements that he would be impartial.

Mehta, an Obama appointee, noted throughout Tuesday’s hearing that potential jurors likely know something about the Jan. 6, 2021, siege on the U.S. Capitol, which wound up delaying the certification of the presidential election results. But what is important, Mehta underscored, is whether they can set aside their views to remain unbiased at the trial.

In proceedings expected to last up to six weeks, prosecutors intend to show that the five defendants carried out the insurrection as part of a larger plot to “oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power.” Four members of the Oath Keepers 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 insurrection.

Prospective jurors were asked about their knowledge of the Capitol riot, the Oath Keepers group and whether any of that information would impact their ability to remain fair and impartial.

One potential juror said the public hearings for the House Select Committee Investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol Attack played in the background while he was working over the last few months. He also recalled testimony from an Oath Keepers’ affiliate who said the group was involved in the organization of Jan. 6.

When Judge Mehta asked if he thinks he can be an impartial juror, the man replied yes.

The defense noted that the prospective juror has posted about Jan. 6 on Twitter, but the man emphasized that he does not make such posts often.

Describing the man’s opinion about what occurred on Jan. 6 as negative, the defense asked if he has any feelings about people who “generally” support former President Donald Trump.

After the man answered that he would need to “have a conversation with them,” the defense asked how he would reconcile that potential for bias at trial when he would not be able to speak to the five Oath Keeper defendants. The man did not budge, however, and insisted he could remain impartial.

Judge Mehta rejected the defense's motion to strike the individual from the jury, saying he thinks the juror was “quite firm” in his response that he could remain unbiased.

Throughout Tuesday’s hearing, Mehta repeatedly noted that the Oath Keepers group itself is not on trial, rather it is the five defendants associated with the group who are.

The judge disqualified one man who said he watched wall-to-wall coverage of the House Jan. 6 Committee hearings and compared Jan. 6 to 9/11. And a woman was disqualified after telling the court her friend’s husband is a D.C. police officer who was among the riot’s first responders.  

Among the prospective jurors were a program analyst for the Transportation Security Agency, nonprofit employees, business owners and former congressional staffers.

By the end of the day on Tuesday, 17 jurors were qualified and 12 were disqualified. Judge Mehta said he thinks 45 jurors should be qualified before each side can exercise their strikes. 

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 each of the accused Oath Keepers.

Jury selection is expected to resume Wednesday and may last up to a week.

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