WASHINGTON (CN) — The veteran who founded the far-right Oath Keepers group was sentenced to 18 years in prison Thursday for his role in planning a “bloody revolution” to keep former President Donald Trump in power after the 2020 election.
Stewart Rhodes, 57, received the longest sentence of any Capitol rioters to date. He is also the first American to be sentenced on the rare charge seditious conspiracy in nearly 30 years.
The sentencing concluded a two-day hearing that featured testimony from police officers and congressional staffers who were present at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and were traumatized by the riot.
In his testimony at the hearing, Rhodes was defiant and denied the charges of which he was convicted, saying that he was a “political prisoner” whose only crime was protecting the rights of the political right.
U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta announced the sentence after distinguishing Rhodes from any other defendant to come before him. The Obama appointee highlighted Rhodes’ lack of remorse and commentary over the past two years, which have continued into the past several weeks.
“You, sir, present an ongoing threat and peril to this country and this democracy,” Mehta said. “When you, if ever, are released, it is clear you will take up arms against your government again.”
Rhodes and Kelly Meggs, the leader of a Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers, were the first rioters to be convicted of the Civil War-era charge of seditious conspiracy, but the government has secured several more such convictions in the intervening six months. Four of the latest convictions are members of another extremist group called the Proud Boys, including the group's founder Enrique Tarrio.
Phillip Linder, a defense attorney from Barrett Bright, said that the prosecution was trying to make Rhodes “the face of Jan. 6,” even though he did not enter the Capitol building and did not assault any police officers, charges on which other Oath Keepers and rioters have been convicted.
The argument failed to impress Mehta, who questioned whether the Oath Keepers or other election skeptics would have laid siege to the Capitol but for the plot cooked up by Rhodes. The judge said Rhodes' role as leader of the group and his extensive planning of the attack on the Capitol make him much more dangerous than any individual who committed violence that day, , even though he did not personally commit any violence.
“What was the motive?” Mehta asked Rhodes, before supplying the answer. “You didn’t like the new guy.”
Rhodes’ defense attorneys did not deny their client’s guilt but argued that he should not be punished for the actions of his subordinates, 10 of who are yet to be sentenced.
Prosecutors noted meanwhile that Rhodes reached out to right-wing supporters just four days before Thursday’s hearing, continuing to push the debunked claim that the 2020 election was stolen, and warning that the government would “keep coming after the right” unless Trump returns to office.
Mehta agreed with the prosecution's request to apply what is known as a terrorism enhancement to Rhodes' seditious conspiracy charge. The judge said Rhodes’ his actions are not on the same level as the 1993 World Trade Center attackers, who traveled across seas to kill American citizens, but that his documented history of calling for violence against the government warranted the increase.
Referencing the witnesses invited by the Justice Department to speak on Wednesday at the start of the hearing, Mehta said the insurrection plot wrought serious and irreparable damage to the nation’s democracy and to the people who worked to defend the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Law enforcement officers and congressional staff who were present at the Capitol on Jan. 6 testified about what they experienced two years ago and the trauma that has followed them since.
U.S. Capitol Police Special Agent David Lazarus, who was a member of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s protection detail, described the helplessness he felt in the face of the thousands of rioters.
“I felt nothing I did would be enough, and whatever I did wouldn’t be quick enough,” Lazarus said, with Rhodes and three of his co-defendants present in the courtroom.
“The violence that the rioters brought to the Capitol doesn’t end for many of us,” Lazarus said. “It reached into our lives, into our homes and into the lives of our loved ones.”
Another Capitol Police officer, Harry Dunn, spoke of similar pain, saying that the rioters ripped away the pride and enjoyment he once had coming into work each day and made his workplace a “neverending crime scene rather than … the citadel of American democracy.”
Since Jan. 6, more 150 Capitol Police officers have left the force as a result of the trauma from that day, and four committed suicide.
Mehta on Wednesday outlined the months of messages between the defendants and other Oath Keepers across the country, outlining in detail the clear evidence showing the extent to which the defendants were preparing for violence.
Mehta used the months of communication to refute the previous arguments from the defense that Rhodes and his lieutenants had brought weapons to the District of Columbia to provide security against violence from counter-protestors, not to use against elected officials or police.
Countless messages in the wake of President Joe Biden’s election victory show how the Oath Keepers began planning for a show of force outside the Capitol to either complicate the certification of the election by Congress, or a “kill or be killed” effort to “defeat the traitors.”
“To state the obvious, this was a highly coordinated group,” Mehta said.
Because of Rhodes' use of secure online messaging platforms to recruit, radicalize and conspire with other like-minded people, Mehta ordered surveillance of all Rhodes' electronic devices in order to prevent further radical activity.
The Justice Department has charged more than 1,000 people to date in connection with the Capitol riot. As of last month, approximately 541 people have pleaded guilty and 445 have been sentenced.
Many of the rioters have received much lighter sentences, however, in part because they pleaded guilty, forgoing a jury trial, and because few others have been charged with as serious crimes as the Oath Keepers. The FBI investigation is still ongoing, with at least 250 people who assaulted police officers still unidentified.
Meggs, the Oath Keeper convicted alongside Rhodes of seditious conspiracy last year, was sentenced Thursday to 12 years in prison. Judge Mehta will impose sentences Friday on two of their co-defendants, Jessica Watkins and Kenneth Harrelson, who were convicted in November of obstructing Congress. Watkins and Harrelson were acquitted of the top charge, seditious conspiracy, as was the fifth co-defendant, Thomas Caldwell.
Mehta canceled Caldwell's sentencing hearing this week as he is considering whether to overturn Berryville, Virginia, man's guilty verdict for obstruction and a documents tampering.
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