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Lower-level Oath Keepers convicted on top charge of seditious conspiracy

The big win for the Department of Justice follows an earlier trial where the far-right militia group’s founder was convicted of plotting a government overthrow after former President Donald Trump lost reelection.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Jurors returned with guilty verdicts Monday in the seditious conspiracy trial of four members of the far-right Oath Keepers organization who led the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.

All four Oath Keepers in this trial — Edward VallejoRoberto MinutaDavid Moerschel and Joseph Hackett — were convicted of the top charge of seditious conspiracy. A representative for the government declined to comment after the reading of the verdict.

Speaking with reporters after the verdict, Moerschel’s defense attorney Scott Weinberg said the defendants “are not the evil insurrectionists that the media makes them seem.” 

“And I know that they lost the trial,” he said, “but they’re real people who got caught up in this crazy 2020 election narrative. And I know that’s not an excuse, but I just think people should take a moment to try to understand where people are coming from and why things happened.” 

Weinberg put the blame on former President Trump for creating the narrative that he said sucked in his clients. 

“Well, look, I don’t really want to say this, but, you know, obviously, these men were swept up by the ‘Stop the Steal’ nonsense that was pushed by the president,” he said, referring to Trump’s baseless conspiracy theory that falsely insists he lost the 2020 election due to election fraud he has otherwise been unable to document.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, an Obama appointee, presided over the trial. A sentencing date has not yet been set. 

Moerschel and his co-defendants were also convicted of conspiracy to prevent any officers from performing their duties, obstruction of an official proceeding, and conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding. The official proceeding in question was the ceremony that had been underway in Congress on Jan. 6 to certify that President Joe Biden has won the 2020 election. Moerschel, Minuta and Hackett were acquitted of lesser charges related to tampering with documents or proceedings and aiding and abetting. 

Prosecutors had split their case off from a larger indictment that netted the successful convictions last year of the Oath Keepers' founder, Stewart Rhodes, as well as the leader of the group’s Florida chapter, Kelly Meggs. As with the newly convicted defendants, Rhodes and Meggs face up to 20 years each for the seditious conspiracy charge alone.

With a third seditious conspiracy trial underway in the same courthouse, Monday's round of convictions sharpens the government's edge in what are the biggest cases to arise from the insurrection, using a charge from the Civil War era. Three co-defendants of Rhodes and Meggs had been convicted only of lesser charges in the first trial, putting pressure on the government in a second round to thread the needle where none of the indicted Oath Keepers are household names.

At least five people died during or as a result of 2021 siege on the Capitol building, an attack that sent lawmakers into hiding and left dozens of police officers injured.

Roberto Minuta of Prosper, Texas, leaves Washington federal court on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, after he and three other members of the Oath Keepers were convicted of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. Theirs was the second major trial involving far-right extremists who plotted to forcibly keep President Donald Trump in power. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The charging papers accuse the Oath Keeper defendants of planning to “stop the lawful transfer of presidential power by Jan. 20, 2021.” Prosecutors say the members of the loosely organized antigovernment militia 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."

Jurors began deliberations on Vallejo, Minuta, Moerschel and Hackett after closing arguments Wednesday.

“Our democracy was under attack,” U.S. Attorney Louis Manzo said, “but for the defendants it was everything they trained for and a moment to celebrate.”

The plot to stop the transfer of power to President Joe Biden erupted quickly after Trump lost reelection in late 2020.

Ready to form an arsenal, Manzo said, members of the Oath Keepers transported weapons from across the country and stashed them at a hotel on the eve of the Jan. 6 ceremony in which Congress would certify the election results.

Defense attorneys argued meanwhile that there was never a plan to storm the Capitol, and that government attorneys cherry-picked from troves of online messages to attempt to persuade the jury.

“The government has built its case upon selective evidence selection and scary words,” said defense attorney William Lee Shipley, who represents Minuta.

Outside the courtroom Monday, Weinberg did not dispute that people are responsible for their own actions and warned about the coat of unshakable faith in one’s leaders.

“Take everything with a grain of salt,” the attorney said, because when you follow someone blindly you end up in a terrible situation.” 

As for Trump and other politicians who “pumped the false narrative of a stolen election,” Weinberg said he thinks they “are morally responsible — I don’t know if they’re legally responsible.” 

Elsewhere in the federal courthouse, five members of a similar far-right militia, the Proud Boys, are standing trial on seditious conspiracy charges in front of U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump appointee.

superseding indictment from June notes that Rhodes and Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio met in an underground garage on the eve of Jan. 6. They are two of the highest-profile people to face Capitol riot-related charges so far.

The government has so far charged approximately 950 people in connection with the Capitol riot. As of Jan. 6, about 364 people had pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, and about 119 had pleaded guilty to felonies. Approximately 192 people have been sentenced to prison time. 

Two more Oath Keepers included in the original indictment, Joshua James and Brian Ulrich, previously pleaded guilty.

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