By Sarah N. Lynch and Chris Gallagher
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The trial of Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right Oath Keepers militia, and four others began on Tuesday in what will be the most high-profile case so far in the Justice Department’s investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Rhodes and his co-defendants Kelly Meggs, Thomas Caldwell, Jessica Watkins and Kenneth Harrelson are the first people in more than 10 years to face federal charges of seditious conspiracy under a Civil War-era statute that is rarely prosecuted and carries a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Seditious conspiracy is defined as two or more people plotting “to overthrow, put down or to destroy by force the government of the United States.”
Supporters of former President Donald Trump, a Republican, stormed the U.S. Capitol in a failed attempt to overturn his 2020 election loss to Democrat Joe Biden after Trump falsely claimed the election had been stolen from him. Five people died during and shortly after the riot, and about 140 police were injured.
The Oath Keepers is an anti-government militia whose membership includes current and former U.S. military and law enforcement personnel.
The five accused Oath Keeper defendants also face charges of conspiring to obstruct and obstructing an official proceeding, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, and conspiring to prevent an officer from discharging duties.
In addition, the defendants who physically entered the Capitol building – Watkins, Meggs and Harrelson – are charged with property destruction. Watkins separately faces a civil disorder charge, while the other four are each charged with tampering for allegedly trying to destroy evidence.
VIDEO CLIPS, TEXT MESSAGES
The indictment against the five alleges they plotted to use force to oppose the peaceful transfer of power from Trump to Biden. Prosecutors have also said the defendants trained and planned for Jan. 6, the day Congress met to certify Biden’s win.
Prosecutors say Rhodes led and coordinated the alleged plot, which involved the defendants setting up a “quick reaction force” and stockpiling weapons at a northern Virginia hotel.
The indictment alleges Caldwell helped coordinate the quick reaction force teams, while Watkins, Harrelson and Meggs are accused of storming into the Capitol building in military-like formation. They are not accused of carrying guns onto Capitol grounds.
Jury selection started on Tuesday and is expected to last for several days. The entire trial could last for six or seven weeks.
On Tuesday, U.S. Judge Amit Mehta said that of the 150 prospective jurors who had filled out questionnaires, 29 had already been struck from the list based on the answers they provided.
Mehta denied a request by the defense to move the trial to a different venue amid concerns they could not find enough impartial jurors.
He noted that of the 150 prospective jurors, 40% indicated they had never heard of the Oath Keepers, while another 45% said they have not watched any of the televised congressional hearings on the Jan. 6 attack.
The judge ordered a group of 30 prospective jurors to avoid watching or reading any news coverage about another congressional hearing due to begin on Tuesday.
The trial is expected to feature testimony from dozens of witnesses, as well as video clips from the day of the attack, and both audio and text message exchanges among the defendants.
Attorneys for some of the defendants are expected to argue that their clients believed they could be called to action if Trump invoked the Insurrection Act, a law that empowers the president to deploy troops to suppress civil disorder.
However, they will not be permitted to claim that Trump ordered them to march on the Capitol or asked them to stop Congress from certifying the 2020 election results.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Chris Gallagher, Editing by Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)