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Seditious conspiracy trial of Oath Keepers nears conclusion after 8 weeks

Prosecutors mounted their closing argument Friday morning, saying that the far-right extremists agreed that violence would be justified to keep former President Donald Trump in power.

WASHINGTON (CN) — A federal jury in Washington heard closing arguments on Friday in the government’s case against the founder of the Oath Keepers and four others charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy began her nearly two-hour summation by focusing on how Stewart Rhodes had called for a civil war, “with all of its horrors and all of its violence,” two days after Democrat Joe Biden defeated the incumbent President Donald Trump in the 2020 race for the White House.

“We are not getting through this without a civil war,” Rhodes wrote to members of his right-wing extremist group on Nov. 5, 2020. “Prepare your mind, body, and spirit.”

Rakoczy described America's more-than-200-year history of peaceful transfer of presidential power as a critical tradition of its democracy and noted that closely contested elections have previously divided many Americans and left them angry. Yet time after time, she said, power was transferred peacefully because Americans respected the rule of law — but “not these defendants.”

The mountain of evidence presented over the trial now in its eighth week, she said, has shown that, in the aftermath of the 2020 election, Rhodes banded together with his co-defendants and agreed to do whatever was necessary — up to and including use of force — to stop the lawful transfer of power to President Joe Biden.

And on Jan. 6, Rakoczy continued, they outfitted their operation with an “arsenal of deadly weapons” that they transported to the Washington area from across the nation.

“They seized the opportunity to stop the transfer of power by attacking the U.S. Capitol,” she said.

Rhodes, 57, and his co-defendants, Thomas Caldwell, 68; Kelly Meggs, 53; Kenneth Harrelson, 41; and Jessica Watkins, 40, each face counts for seditious conspiracy. Prosecutors say they communicated about their plans to overthrow the government via encrypted chats, stocked up on weapons and traveled across the country to carry out an attack that left five people dead and delayed Congress from certifying the election.

“On Jan. 6, our democracy was under attack,” Rakoczy said — the manifestation of a plot that the defendants trained for, and “that is why we are here.”

U.S. Capitol security guards train their weapons on broken glass as rioters on the other side attempt to break through. (Image courtesy of DOJ via Courthouse News)

The prosecutor said the attack on the seat of the American government led to U.S. Capitol police officers cowering at the doors of the building, desperately trying to defend, protect and secure it, while Congress members and staff barricaded themselves inside the House Chamber and then-Vice President Mike Pence fled for his safety.

Rakoczy made clear to jurors that the five defendants are not charged with entering into an agreement ahead of Jan. 6 to storm the Capitol. Rather, they are charged with using their operation to attack the Capitol so that the lawful transfer of power would not occur.

Attacking the Capitol was just a “means to an end” for the defendants, she said — they prepared to use force, used force on Jan. 6 and continued plotting to stop the lawful transfer of power in the aftermath.

One of the indicted men, Thomas Caldwell, 68, testified in his own defense earlier this week that he cannot be considered a member of the Oath Keepers because he never paid dues. Both he and his wife testified that their purpose for coming to Washington was to see the outgoing President Donald Trump at the Ellipse, a park south of the Capitol, for a protest predicated on the falsehood that Democrats stole the election. It is the defense of Rhodes and his other accused co-conspirators that they came to provide security detail as the Oath Keepers have done throughout their 13-year history. 

Rakoczy emphasized that even lawful reasons for coming to Washington on Jan. 6 would not negate criminal liability if the jury finds that the defendants had agreed beforehand to stop the lawful transfer of power by force. 

Prosecutors introduced this image of Thomas Caldwell from the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, part of a YouTube video where he refers to members of Congress as traitors. (Justice Department via Courthouse News)

Evidence has shown for weeks, if not months, that prior to Jan. 6, the defendants joined together and agreed to do whatever was necessary, up to and including the use of violence, to stop the election from becoming finalized, she said. 

Rakozcy pointed to how Rhodes urged regional leaders of the Oath Keepers to refuse to accept Biden as president in the days following the November 2020 election. That same month, she said, Rhodes walked his group through the overthrow of the former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. 

Rhodes transmitted a “step-by-step procedure” detailing how protesters swarmed the streets after Milosevic's disputed reelection and gathered at the Capitol. Having encouraged military to align with people in the streets, the revolutionaries stormed parliament. 

On the Oath Keepers' website before Jan. 6, Rhodes also penned and posted two open letters that implored Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, a move that would enable the president to call on militias to enforce federal laws or suppress a rebellion.  

During the trial, prosecutors likened the Oath Keepers' preparation, planning and presence at two pro-Trump rallies held in November and December in Washington as “dry runs” for their operation on Jan. 6.  

Rakoczy told jurors on Friday that, as the riot was unfolding at the Capitol on Jan. 6, the defendants saw it as an opportunity to “add bodies to the cause” and they took it.  

They conspired to halt the transfer of power, she said, and they did just that on Jan. 6. 

“That is unacceptable. That is criminal,” she said. “And that is why the only verdict in this case that is … is to find each and every one of these defendants guilty of seditious conspiracy … and all of the counts against them.” 

But Rhodes’ defense attorney Phillip Bright urged the jury to focus heavily on whether the five defendants ever actually agreed to breach the Capitol or the Rotunda, or to stop state electors from certifying the election. 

“Nobody can dispute some of the evidence in this case,” Bright said, given that the troves of messages, photos and videos that show which defendants actually went inside the Capitol and which did not. 

“The difference we will ultimately come to in this,” he said, “has to do ultimately with whether or not an agreement was reached — a meeting of the actual minds regarding the charges at hand.” 

Bright suggested that jurors should not read too much into his client's posting of the Serbian plan “conveniently” on Nov. 7, just four days after the 2020 election. 

“I get that Mr. Rhodes is really smart,” he said, but he’s not Nostradamus, the reputed French seer. 

Rhodes did not specifically post the Serbian plan “knowing that what happened on Jan. 6 would happen three months later,” he said. 

With more context, the lawyer continued, jurors can see Rhodes specifically said that the Serbian plan is not a one-day plan.  

“That’s unfortunate it exists so government can point to it as preplanning,” Bright said. “But it’s not.” 

A Dec. 26, 2020, tweet from then-President Donald Trump calls on supporters to fight for him on Jan. 6. Including the post in a March 5 complaint, Congressman Eric Swalwell says that is just what happened in the storming of the Capitol building. (Image via Courthouse News)

Bright argued that none of the defendants could have known in advance that former President Trump was going to tweet on Dec. 9 about a “wild” protest in Washington on Jan. 6. And evidence, as well as witness testimony, show Jan. 6 was not discussed in any Oath Keepers' group chats until Dec. 21. This means the pro-Trump rallies in November and December could not have been “dry runs” for Jan. 6 as the government suggested, Bright pressed. 

The defense attorney also said none of the 50 witnesses in the case testified that there was a plan to storm the Capitol, to breach the Rotunda, or to stop state electors from certifying the election. 

“I’m going to trust all 50 witnesses who told me there was no meeting of the minds and there was no plan,” he said. 

Bright's summations lasted about an hour and a half. 

Defense counsel for Meggs also gave a closing argument that lasted about an hour and a half. Stanley Woodward told jurors to consider how his client could have been tasked with providing security at the Save America rally event set to last until 5 p.m. on Jan. 6, yet also have planned to go into the Capitol and to stop the certification of the election. 

“He can’t be in two places at one time,” Woodward said. 

Defense counsel for the remaining defendants are expected to give closing arguments on Monday.  

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, an Obama appointee, is presiding over the trial, which had been expected to last up to six weeks.

A seditious conspiracy charge carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison. It requires prosecutors to prove to the jury that the accused Oath Keepers had an actual agreement to "overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force" the U.S. government.  

The Justice Department so far has charged more than 880 people in connection with the Capitol riot. As of Nov. 6, about 337 people have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, about 110 have pleaded guilty to felonies. Approximately 173 people have been sentenced to prison time.

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Categories / Criminal, Politics, Trials

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