A federal jury on Tuesday convicted Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes of seditious conspiracy for leading a months-long plot to unleash political violence to prevent the inauguration of President Biden, culminating in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
The panel of seven men and five women deliberated for three days before finding Rhodes and a co-defendant guilty of conspiring to oppose by force the lawful transition of presidential power. Rhodes and all four co-defendants on trial were also convicted of obstructing Congress as it met to confirm the results of the 2020 election. Both offenses are punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Rhodes, in a dark suit and black eye-patch from an old gun accident, stood at the defense table, watching impassively as verdicts were read for the defendants facing a 13-count indictment.
The indictment brought against Rhodes, 56, and other Oath Keepers associates in January was the first time the US government leveled the historically rare charge of seditious conspiracy in the massive Jan. 6 investigation. He is the highest-profile figure to face trial in connection with rioting by angry Trump supporters who injured scores of officers and ransacked offices, forcing the evacuation of lawmakers.
Rhodes and followers, dressed in combat-style gear, converged on the Capitol after staging an "arsenal" of weapons at nearby hotels, ready to take up arms at Rhodes's direction, the government charged. Rhodes's defense said he and co-defendants came to Washington as bodyguards and peacekeepers, bringing firearms only in case Trump met their demand to mobilize private militia to stop Biden from becoming president.
Analysts called the outcome a vindication for the Justice Department.
“The jury’s verdict on seditious conspiracy confirms that Jan. 6, 2021, was not just ‘legitimate political discourse’ or a peaceful protest that got out of hand. This was a planned, organized, violent assault on the lawful authority of the US government and the peaceful transfer of power,” said Randall D. Eliason, a former federal prosecutor who teaches law at George Washington University.
"Now the only remaining question is how much higher did those plans go, and who else might be held criminally responsible," Eliason said.
The verdict in Rhodes’s case likely will be taken as a bellwether for two remaining Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy trials set for December against five other Oath Keepers and leaders of the Proud Boys, including the longtime chairman Henry ‘Enrique’ Tarrio. Both Rhodes and Tarrio are highly visible leaders of the alt-right or far-right anti-government movements and were highlighted at hearings probing the attack earlier this year by the House Jan. 6 committee.
US Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, who helped defend the Capitol on Jan. 6, said he ran over to the federal courthouse when he heard there was a verdict. He sat sweating in the front row as the verdict was read.
"I was emotional," Dunn said afterward. "I didn't expect to cry." He thanked the jury and the Justice Department for their work on the case.
"I don't look at it like a victory," Dunn said. "A victory is when you win. This was right. This was about doing the right thing."
The Justice Department arrested Rhodes in January and Tarrio in June after an internal debate over whether the magnitude and organization behind the Capitol attack merited bringing rarely used seditious conspiracy charges. Bringing the politically charged count posed a higher risk at trial because it required that prosecutors prove the defendants harbored an intent to forcibly oppose the federal government, compared to the charge of conspiring to obstruct a proceeding of Congress, which is punishable by the same 20-year maximum prison term.
The Justice Department has argued in related cases that a conviction on either charge should carry the same seven to nine-year sentence under advisory federal guidelines, a potential starting point for the judge in Rhodes's case. But the department calculated it was worth the risk to try to send a public message by charging the defendants with one of the most serious political crimes in a wider attack on democracy.
Rhodes, who was at the Capitol but did not enter on Jan. 6, and Tarrio, who allegedly directed his group from Baltimore, drew heightened scrutiny because of the prominence of their followers’ actions at the Capitol and linkages to violence. Both also claimed ties to a long list of Trump advisers associated with the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election results — including Trump political confidant Roger Stone, “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander, and former national security aide Michael Flynn — while attorney Sidney Powell’s nonprofit raised legal defense funds for Rhodes co-defendants.
Though prosecutors sought to prove only that Rhodes plotted with co-defendants to obstruct the presidential transition, both sides acknowledged that he was in contact with Stone, Alexander, and Flynn during the post-election period. Oath Keepers provided them with bodyguards and communicated in a “Friends of Stone” encrypted chat group ahead of Jan. 6.
Rhodes and co-defendants emphasized in testimony that there was no plan to enter the Capitol and that their participation was spur-of-the-moment. But prosecutors said their words and actions demonstrated tacit agreement with an illegal plot proposed by Rhodes repeatedly in public and private statements for weeks leading up to Jan. 6, warning that "bloody civil war" was necessary to keep Trump in office if the election results were not overturned.
On trial with Rhodes are Kelly Meggs, 53, an auto dealership manager from Dunnellon, Fla., who prosecutors described as the "Florida state lead" on Jan. 6; Kenneth Harrelson, 42, a medically discharged former Army sergeant and father of two from Titusville, Fla., who prosecutors called the "ground team lead"; Jessica Watkins, 39, another Army veteran and bar owner and militia organizer from Woodstock, Ohio; and Thomas Caldwell, 68, a retired Navy intelligence officer from Berryville, Va. Like Rhodes, Watkins and Caldwell testified in their own defense.
The jury found only defendants Rhodes and Meggs guilty of seditious conspiracy. The jury also split by finding only Meggs and Watkins guilty of conspiring to obstruct Congress, while convicting all five of actually obstructing it. Jurors convicted Meggs, Harrelson and Watkins of conspiring to impede lawmakers, but not property destruction, while each defendant was found guilty of rioting and destruction of evidence.