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Oath Keeper’s plea to seditious conspiracy could be ‘damaging blow’ for other Capitol rioters

One extremism expert sees a possible domino effect after Joshua James pleaded guilty late Wednesday.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The first-of-its-kind plea from a Capitol rioter to the rare charge of seditious conspiracy, and his promise to cooperate with the government, may spell trouble for hundreds of others accused in the deadly insurrection.

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League, predicted that the development in the case of Joshua James, who led an Alabama chapter of the Oath Keepers, “is likely to be a very damaging blow for some or even all of the other defendants.”

“Depending on what he might know, it might be enough to prompt some of the other defendants to plead guilty and avoid trial,” Pitcavage, a historian and analyst of far-right wing groups, told Courthouse News on Thursday.

Prosecutors announced the deal with James the previous evening, saying not only that he had pleaded guilty to conspiring with others to use force to prevent, hinder and delay the transfer of presidential power but has agreed to fully cooperate with the government and to testify before a grand jury.

On Jan. 6, 2021, the 34-year-old from Arab, Alabama, rode to the U.S. Capitol in a golf cart along with fellow members of the right-wing extremist group and made their way through the crowd in a military-style “stack.”

They “aggressively berated and taunted” officers outside the Capitol before pushing past them and joining a mob “confronting and jostling” a line of officers standing between the lobby and the Capitol Rotunda, according to court documents. 

Also in the government's evidence are encrypted messages that James transmitted in the days before the attack, stating his belief that he thought teams within the Oath Keepers were sufficiently armed.

James pleaded guilty on Wednesday to seditious conspiracy and to obstruction of an official proceeding. Guidelines for his sentencing range between seven and nine years in prison.

He is the first of 11 people linked to the Oath Keepers to plead guilty to seditious conspiracy in connection with the riot. Authorities claim they communicated through encrypted chats, stocked up on weapons and traveled across the country to “oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power.”

Pitcavage said James’ guilty plea could further play into the government’s favor by encouraging more guilty pleas from other defendants who might reason that, “If he didn’t think he had a chance in court, what chance do I have in court?”

And one of the “hurdles” prosecutors face in seditious-conspiracy cases is convincing the jury that the accused "really had such ambitious goals,” he said. 

So the fact that someone has pleaded guilty to such a crime, and testified about it, could "potentially convince jurors that seditious conspiracy actually occurred."

Former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani has a similar outlook. He said proving that the accused rioters engaged in an unlawful conspiracy to overthrow the government “requires cooperator testimony corroborated by direct evidence like text or social media messages and audio recordings.”

“When they see the writing on the wall that evidence is stacked against them, they may relent and plead guilty,” said Rahmani, president of West Coast Trial Lawyers.

As for the broader far right extremist community, Pitcavage believes James’ plea will make it more difficult for them to “dismiss” Capitol riot prosecutions as being politically-motivated persecution of “patriots.”

“After all, here is someone who has openly admitted that they were involved in a plot to use force to reverse the outcome of a free and fair election,” Pitcavage said.

And if there are more guilty pleas to serious charges, or convictions in court, he said, “it is more likely that the prosecutions will be able to serve as some sort of deterrent effect to make such an event less likely to happen in the future.”

More than 750 people have been charged so far in connection with the Capitol attack. Out of an excess of 220 guilty pleas, more than 100 have been sentenced and at least 90 are set to go to trial.

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