Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes guilty of seditious conspiracy

Members of a far-right anti-government militia group have been found guilty of seditious conspiracy against the United States in connection with the attack on the US Capitol on 6 January, 2021.

After a nearly two-month trial with testimony and arguments from federal prosecutors and defence attorneys, as well as the defendants themselves, Stewart Rhodes and Kelly Meggs were found guilty by a federal jury in Washington DC after three full days of deliberations.

Three other Oath Keepers associates were charged in the case but were found not guilty.

Jurors were asked to consider whether the Oath Keepers were not only motivated by President Donald Trump’s baseless narrative that the presidential election was stolen from him but also had planned to forcibly disrupt the peaceful transfer of power during a joint session of Congress.

Rhodes and his allies spent weeks discussing a violent response to the 2020 election on encrypted messaging apps, then organised a weapons and supply cache at a nearby hotel before joining the mob that broke through the Capitol’s doors and windows to storm the halls of Congress and block the certification of Joe Biden’s presidency, according to federal prosecutors.

They face up to 20 years in prison.

Rhodes and Meggs – who were also charged alongside Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson and Thomas Caldwell – are among the first Americans to be convicted of treason-related charges in decades, representing the largest case with the most serious charges to grow out of the sprawling criminal investigation from the US Department of Justice into the Capitol attack.

All five defendants were found guilty of obstruction of an official proceeding of Congress.

Meggs and Watkins were also found guilty on conspiracy to obstruct.

The Oath Keepers founder repeatedly tried to contact Mr Trump, even after the attack, when he urged him in an undelivered message to “go down in history as the savior of the Republic” or “die in prison”.

Rhodes and Caldwell were on restricted Capitol grounds outside the building that day; they did not enter the building. Meggs, Harrelson and Watkins, however, joined military-style “stack” formations with rioters who pushed through police lines to get into the building.

Prosecutors did not allege that the group had a plan to break into the Capitol but had conspired to commit an act of treason against the federal government.

“They took matters out of the hands of the people, and put rifles into their own hands,” assistant US attorney Jeffrey Nestler told jurors in his closing remarks. “They claimed to wrap themselves in the constitution. They trampled it instead. They claimed to be saving the Republic, but they fractured it.”

Attorneys for the Oath Keepers – and several members who testified in their own defence during the trial – argued there was no plot, and claimed that the mountains of text messages and video evidence putting their violent rhetoric on display was their own frustrated bombast and not an actual threat. The jury disagreed.

The last time the Justice Department brought seditious conspiracy charges was in 2010 after federal law enforcement arrested militia members in Michigan. Those charges were later dismissed over lack of evidence of conspiracy against the government.

More than a dozen rioters have been charged with seditious conspiracy, including three other Oath Keepers who have separately pleaded guilty to the charges.

Several members of far-right nationalist gang the Proud Boys – including its former chair Enrique Tarrio – are also charged with seditious conspiracy. That trial is scheduled to begin in December. A second Oath Keepers trial also is scheduled to begin on 5 December.