That’s what an American jury found Steward Rhodesfounder of the far-right Oath Keepers, guilty of seditious conspiracy in connection with last year’s riots at the US Capitol.
There are seditious conspiracy charges are among the most serious to emerge from a U.S. Justice Department investigation into the events of January 6, 2021, when a mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the Capitol.
Tuesday’s verdict closed days of deliberations, and Rhodes now faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
A co-defendant, Kelly Meggs, was also found guilty of seditious conspiracy, while three others – Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell – were acquitted of that charge. All five defendants were found guilty of obstructing official proceedings, with mixed sentences on other charges.
In charging Rhodes and his followers with seditious conspiracy, the Justice Department claims the defendants were “willing and willing to use force” to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.
The January 6 events disrupted a joint session of Congress underway to confirm Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. Lawmakers were forced to flee.
The Justice Department alleges that the defendants’ presence at the Capitol on January 6 was intended to “prevent, hinder, or delay” the election certification process. Trump had falsely claimed the election was “stolen” through fraud.
Prosecutors also charged Rhodes and his co-defendants with “bringing and contributing paramilitary equipment, weapons and supplies” to the Capitol as part of their attempt to disrupt proceedings.
Tuesday’s decision is the culmination of a nearly two-month process that could provide a benchmark for future Justice Department prosecutions. Five members of the Proud Boys, another far-right group, are also charged with seditious conspiracy in December for their role in the January 6 attack.
Defendants Deny Plot to Storm Capitol
Rhodes, 57, a former U.S. Army parachutist and lawyer trained at Yale, is the most prominent member of the the oath-keepersa loose network of individuals who pledge to “keep the oath taken by all military and police to defend the Constitution against all enemies”.
Rhodes pleaded not guilty to the Justice Department charges, as did his four co-defendants.
They included two Florida Oath Keepers leaders, Meggs, 53, and Harrelson, 41, as well as Virginia’s Caldwell, 68, and Ohio’s Watkins, 40.
The group claims there was no plot to storm the Capitol on January 6.
During the trial, Rhodes, Caldwell and Watkins took the witness stand to deny the prosecution’s allegations that their actions were organized and designed to disrupt American democracy. Instead, they described their actions as spontaneous.
“There was no plan to enter the building for any purpose,” Rhodes told the jurors, who called some of the oath keepers’ decision to enter the building “stupid.”
Rhodes said his actions were intended to provide support for Trump pending the then-president’s ability to invoke the Insurrection Act to stay in power and call up militias.
Prosecutors say attack coordinated
But prosecutors challenged the defendants’ version of events, citing social media, text messages and other Oath Keeper communications to portray a planned attempt to stop Biden’s election.
“They coordinated cross-country travel to get into Washington, D.C., equipped themselves with a variety of weapons, donned combat and tactical gear, and were prepared to heed Rhodes’ call to take up arms,” the prosecutors claimed in their indictment.
According to the Justice Department, Rhodes wrote in a Signal chat that if Biden takes the presidency, “it will be a bloody and desperate battle. We’re going to fight. That cannot be avoided.”
Rhodes later posted a letter on the Oath Keeper website that “many of us will have our mission-critical gear stashed away just outside DC”. The prosecution understood this to refer to guns and firearms stored in a Virginia hotel during the attack on the Capitol.
Prosecutors said “quick reaction force” teams were being formed to transport these weapons to Washington, DC, if called upon. They identified one of the defendants — Caldwell, a retired U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander and former Federal Bureau of Investigation employee — as one of the main organizers behind these teams.
During the January 6 events, prosecutors said co-defendants Meggs, Harrelson and Watkins marched up the Capitol steps in a military-style “stack” formation to push past guards and breach the doors. Rhodes, meanwhile, stayed out like “a general overseeing his troops on a battlefield”.
“They devised a plan for armed insurrection to shatter a foundation of American democracy,” assistant attorney Jeffrey Nestler said in court.
Oath Keepers take the stand
Earlier this year, three Oath Keepers pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy as part of the Justice Department’s investigation. They did not testify as part of the prosecutors’ case.
But prosecutors did call other members of the Oath Keepers as cooperating witnesses as they sought lighter sentences in their own cases.
The first was Jason Dolan, a former Florida Marine who pleaded guilty in 2021 to one count of conspiracy and one count of obstruction of official proceedings. He testified that he was willing to stop Joe Biden’s certification as president “by any means necessary,” adding, “That’s why we brought our firearms.”
“It seemed to me that many of us were willing — I was willing — to somehow stop the certification process,” Dolan told the court.
Graydon Young, de first Oath Keeper to plead guilty on charges related to the Capitol bombing, also took the witness stand. A member of the Florida Oath Keepers, he testified that he saw the January 6 attack as a “Bastille-type event”, drawing a parallel between his actions and those of the French Revolution.
“The people were clearly attacking the government and its function,” he told the court.
But when questioned by attorney James Lee Bright, Young confirmed that he felt the decision to storm the Capitol was “spontaneous”, explaining that “an opportunity to do something arose.”
“It was implicit to me at the time,” Young said. “I didn’t explicitly say, ‘Let’s commit a crime,’ but I thought it was implicit.”
Created during the American Civil War as a bulwark against Southern separatists, seditious conspiracy is defined in U.S. law as two or more people plotting “to overthrow, bring down, or destroy by force the government of the United States.”
This may include the use of force to oppose government authority or delay the implementation of US laws.
Seditious conspiracy allegations are relatively rare and difficult to prove. Before the January 6 attack, the Justice Department last tried an incendiary conspiracy case against members of the Michigan-based Hutaree militia movement.
That case failed, with a judge taking the unusual step of dismissing the charges because he could not prove that the defendants were plotting a violent uprising.
The most recent successful prosecution of a seditious conspiracy dates back to 1995, in the wake of a thwarted plot to bomb bridges, tunnels and buildings around New York City, including the United Nations headquarters.