By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Stewart Rhodes, founder of the right-wing Oath Keepers militia group, was found guilty on Tuesday of seditious conspiracy for last year’s attack on the U.S. Capitol in a failed bid to overturn then-President Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss – an important victory for the Justice Department.
The verdicts against Rhodes and four co-defendants, after three days of deliberations by the 12-member jury, came in the highest-profile trial so far to emerge from the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol, with other high-profile trials due to begin next month.
Rhodes, a Yale Law School-educated former Army paratrooper and disbarred attorney, was accused by prosecutors during an eight-week trial of fomenting a plot to use force to try to block Congress from certifying Democratic President Joe Biden’s election victory over Trump, a Republican. Rhodes was convicted on three counts and acquitted on two.
One of his co-defendants, Kelly Meggs, was also found guilty of seditious conspiracy while the three others – Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell – were acquitted of that charge. All five defendants were convicted of obstruction of an official proceeding – the congressional certification of the election results – with mixed verdicts on a handful of other charges.
The charges of seditious conspiracy and obstruction of an official proceeding each carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta presided over the trial.
Rhodes, who wears an eye patch after accidentally shooting himself in the face with his own gun, is one of the most prominent defendants of the roughly 900 charged so far in connection with the attack. Meggs, who heads the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers, was the only defendant besides Rhodes in this trial who played a leadership role in the organization.
Rhodes in 2009 founded the Oath Keepers, a militia group whose members include current and retired U.S. military personnel, law enforcement officers and first responders. Its members have showed up, often heavily armed, at protests and political events around the United States including the racial justice demonstrations following the murder of a Black man named George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer.
Rhodes’ lawyer Ed Tarpley called the verdicts in the trial “a mixed bag.”
“We are grateful for the not guilty verdicts received, we are disappointed in the guilty verdicts,” Tarpley told reporters outside court. “There was no evidence introduced to indicate there was a plan to attack the Capitol.”
Prosecutors during the trial said Rhodes and his co-defendants planned to use force to prevent Congress from formally certifying Biden’s election victory. Meggs, Watkins and Harrelson all entered the Capitol clad in tactical gear.
The defendants was were accused of creating a “quick reaction force” that prosecutors said positioned at a nearby Virginia hotel and was equipped with firearms that could be quickly transported into Washington if summoned.
Fifty witnesses testified during the trial. Rhodes and two of his co-defendants testified in their own defense. They denied plotting any attack or seeking to block Congress from certifying the election results, though Watkins admitted to impeding police officers protecting the Capitol.
Rhodes told the jury he had no plan to storm the Capitol and did not learn that some of his fellow Oath Keepers had breached the building until after the riot had ended.
Prosecutors during cross-examination sought to paint Rhodes as a liar, showing him page after page of his inflammatory text messages, videos, photos and audio recordings. These included Rhodes lamenting about not bringing rifles to Washington on Jan. 6 and saying he could have hanged U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat reviled by the right, from a lamppost.
Watkins, a transgender woman who fled the U.S. Army after being confronted with homophobic slurs, and Caldwell, a disabled U.S. Navy veteran, also chose to testify.
Watkins admitted to having “criminal liability” for impeding police officers inside the Capitol and apologized. At the same time, Watkins denied having any plan to storm the building, describing being “swept up” just as enthusiastic shoppers behave on “Black Friday” when they rush into stores to purchase discount-price holiday gifts like TVs.
Caldwell, who like Rhodes did not enter the Capitol building and never formally joined the Oath Keepers, tried to downplay some of the inflammatory texts he sent in connection with the attack. Caldwell said some of the lines were adapted from or inspired by movies such as “The Princess Bride” and cartoons such as Bugs Bunny.
Four other Oath Keepers members charged with seditious conspiracy are due to go to trial in December. Members of another right-wing group called the Proud Boys, including its former chairman Enrique Tarrio, also are due to head to trial on seditious conspiracy charges in December.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)