WASHINGTON (CN) — A federal jury entered a guilty verdict Tuesday against Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the extremist right-wing Oath Keepers group, and one of his associates, bringing a close to what has been the most high-profile trial over the Jan. 6 insurrection to date.
Rhodes, 57, and his co-defendant, Kelly Meggs, 53, are the first among scores of defendants charged in connection with the Capitol riot to be prosecuted and convicted of the rare charge of seditious conspiracy, meaning they plotted to use force to disrupt the peaceful transition of power following the 2020 election. Meggs was the leader of a Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers and on Jan. 6 led members of the group into the Capitol.
While the jury acquitted Thomas Caldwell, 68, Jessica Watkins, 40, and Kenneth Harrelson, 41, of the seditious conspiracy charge, it found them guilty alongside Rhodes and Meggs of obstruction of an official proceeding, namely the ceremony that had been underway in Congress on Jan. 6 to certify then-President Donald Trump's election defeat. All five defendants were also convicted of aiding and abetting. All but Watkins were found guilty of destroying evidence.
Rhodes and Meggs face up to 60 years in prison for the three charges. The jury spent three days in total on deliberations, getting started before the Thanksgiving recess and resuming this week.
After the verdict, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland reiterated his promise from earlier this year that the Department of Justice is “committed to holding accountable those criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy on Jan. 6, 2021.”
During the more than two months of trial, prosecutors showed records, photos and videos to support the theory that the five defendants planned, recruited and stocked up on weapons as part of a larger plot to “oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power.” Prosecutors likened the Oath Keepers' preparation, planning and presence at two pro-Trump rallies held in November and December 2020 in Washington as “dry runs” for their operation on Jan. 6.
U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy told jurors during opening arguments that, in the early days after the November election, Rhodes urged regional leaders of the Oath Keepers to refuse to accept President-elect Joe Biden. She said Rhodes transmitted a “step-by-step procedure” that month, detailing how protesters overthrew Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic following his disputed reelection in 2000.
Rhodes also published two open letters on the Oath Keepers' website by December 2020, imploring Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to stay in power. Meanwhile Rhodes was also telling his followers that, if Trump did not act, they would have to do it themselves.
Once the riot at the Capitol was underway on Jan. 6, 2021, Rakoczy noted during closing arguments, the defendants saw it as an opportunity to “add bodies to the cause” and they took it. Jeffrey Nestler, another federal prosecutor, said the five defendants “claimed to wrap themselves in the Constitution; they trampled it instead. They claimed to be saving the republic; they fractured it instead.”
Rhodes was one of three of the defendants who testified in the trial. Denying prosecutors’ claim that the Oath Keepers came to Washington on Jan. 6 “prepared for battle,” the eyepatch-wearing veteran insisted they came to provide security detail for rallygoers and speakers, as they have done in years past. Rhodes also said they wanted to be available on standby in case Trump invoked the Insurrection Act to remain in power. The law authorizes a president to call on militias for the purpose of enforcing federal laws or suppressing a rebellion.
The first defendant to get on the witness stand after Rhodes was Caldwell, a former Navy officer who told the jury that he should not be considered a member of the Oath Keepers since he never paid dues.