WASHINGTON, Nov 29 (Reuters) – Oath Keepers founder Stuart Rhodes and another leader of the right-wing group were found guilty on Tuesday of conspiring to subvert an attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump, a major 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 yet to emerge from the deadly Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, a failed bid to overturn the defeat of then-President Trump in the 2020 election.
Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper who graduated from Yale Law School and a disbarred attorney, was accused by prosecutors during an eight-week trial of planning to use force to try to prevent Congress from confirming Democratic President Joe Biden’s election victory over Republican Trump. Rhodes was convicted of three counts and acquitted of two.
One of his co-defendants, Kelly Maggs, was also found guilty of seditious conspiracy, while the other three—Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins, and Thomas Caldwell—were acquitted of that charge.
All five defendants were convicted of obstructing an official process – congressional approval of election results – with mixed verdicts on a handful of other charges.
The charges of disorderly conduct and obstruction of official process each carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Two more high-profile trials related to the attack are set to begin next month. Four other members of the Oath Keepers face seditious conspiracy charges, as do members of the far-right group the Separated Boys, including former chairman Enrique Tario.
James Lee Bright, a lawyer for Rhodes, said he thinks the ruling will inform how the Justice Department proceeds with the other conspiracy charges.
“Returning it, even though we’re not happy with it, probably speaks to the fact that the Justice Department is going to go full steam ahead like everyone else,” Bright told reporters outside court.
Rhodes, who wore an eyepatch after accidentally shooting himself in the face with his gun, is one of the most prominent defendants among the approximately 900 accused in the attack. Meggs, who heads the Florida chapter of Oath Keepers, was the only defendant other than Rhodes in this trial who held a leadership role in the organization.
Rhodes in 2009 founded the Oath Keepers, a militia group whose members include current and retired US military personnel, law enforcement officers and first responders. Its members have appeared, often heavily armed, at protests and political events across the United States, including demonstrations for racial justice in the wake of a murder of a black man named George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
“The Department of Justice is committed to holding accountable those criminally responsible for the attack on our democracy on January 6, 2021,” Attorney General Rick Garland said in a statement.
Rhodes’ attorney, Ed Tarpley, called the verdicts a “mixed bag.”
“We are grateful for the verdicts that have been reached. We are disappointed with the verdicts,” Terpley told reporters outside the courthouse. “No evidence was presented to indicate 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 confirming Biden’s election victory. Maggs, Watkins and Harrelson all entered the Capitol wearing tactical gear.
The defendants were also accused of creating a “quick reaction force” that prosecutors say was located at a nearby hotel in Virginia and equipped with firearms that could be quickly transported to Washington.
50 witnesses testified during the trial, including Rhodes and two of his co-defendants. They denied planning any attack or seeking to block Congress from ratifying the election results, though Watkins admitted he interfered with police protecting the Capitol.
Rhodes told the jury that he had no plan to storm the Capitol and did not learn that some of his fellow Oath Keepers had broken into the building until after the riot was over.
Prosecutors on 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 that he did not bring guns to Washington on January 6 and saying he could have hung US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat reviled by the right.
Watkins, a transgender woman who fled the US military after facing homophobic slurs, and Caldwell, a disabled US Navy veteran, also chose to testify.
Watkins admitted he was “criminally responsible” for preventing police officers from entering the Capitol and apologized. At the same time, Watkins denied any plans to storm the building, describing it as “getting carried away” just as eager shoppers do on “Black Friday” when they rush to stores to purchase discounted holiday gifts such as televisions.
Her lawyer, Jonathan Crisp, told reporters he was “grateful” his client was acquitted of sedition.
Caldwell, who like Rhodes never entered the Capitol building and never officially joined the Oath Keepers, tried to downplay some of the inflammatory texts he sent around the attack. Caldwell said some of the lines were adapted from or inspired by movies like The Princess Bride and cartoons like Bugs Bunny.
Attorneys for Harrelson and Rhodes told reporters after the trial that they plan to appeal the conviction.
Report by Sarah N. Lynch, additional reporting by Eric Beach and Kostas Pitas; Editing by Scott Malone, Will Dunham and Stephen Coates
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