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Sedition Trial Begins for Oath Keepers Tied to Capitol Riot

The Wall Street Journal. 9/27/2022 Jan Wolfe
© Associated Press

WASHINGTON—A jury trial got under way Tuesday for five members of the Oath Keepers militia, including its founder Stewart Rhodes, in a test for prosecutors seeking to hold leaders of far-right groups accountable for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Mr. Rhodes is being tried in Washington along with four other Oath Keepers associates on charges including seditious conspiracy, the most serious crime leveled by the Justice Department in its sprawling investigation of the Capitol breach.

Jury selection started on Tuesday and could last through the end of the week. The trial before U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta could last more than a month.

Judge Mehta started with a pool of 150 prospective jurors and began winnowing them using a written questionnaire and in-person questioning.

The questionnaire asked about their knowledge of the Oath Keepers and their views on the Jan. 6 riot, among other subject areas.

Mr. Rhodes and his co-defendants, Kelly Meggs, Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson and Thomas Caldwell, are accused of plotting to use force to block Congress from formally certifying President Joe Biden’s election victory.

According to prosecutors, members of the Oath Keepers entered the Capitol as a team in “stack formation,” a single-file military tactic, and some of them later clashed with law enforcement. Prosecutors also accused the members of stationing equipment and weapons just outside Washington that day and planning to ferry them into the city to support the group’s operations, though they didn’t ultimately do so.

Mr. Rhodes didn’t enter the Capitol building that day, but he was seen in video footage huddling with other members outside after the riot. Prosecutors said he had earlier directed his followers to the area.

The defendants have said in court filings that they used bombastic language but didn’t have a real plan for any violence. They assert that they went to Washington to help with security and logistics for a Trump rally that took place before the rioting.

The defense also hinges on the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law that allows a president to deploy American troops inside the country. In the days before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, some of Mr. Trump’s allies urged him to invoke that law and unleash the military to help keep him in office.

The defendants have said that they brought gear and weapons because they sincerely thought Mr. Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act. For that reason, they have said, they lacked the required criminal intent for seditious conspiracy.

“What the Government contends was a conspiracy to oppose United States laws was actually lobbying and preparation for the President to utilize a United States law to take lawful action,” Mr. Rhodes’s lawyers Phillip Linder and James Bright argued in a recent court filing.

Prosecutors have said that the defendants are seeking to use the Insurrection Act as legal cover and were plotting violence regardless of what Mr. Trump did.

To win a conviction, prosecutors will need to persuade jurors that “the object of the conspiracy was agreed upon and not simply bravado discussed colloquially,” said Jay Town, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.

“In this case, if the United States can prove just the bare facts alleged in the indictment, then a guilty verdict seems likely,” said Mr. Town, now an executive at Gray Analytics.

The Justice Department brought the case in January, obtaining an indictment that charged 11 Oath Keepers with seditious conspiracy, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

The group, founded by Mr. Rhodes in 2009, has generally sought recruits with military or law-enforcement backgrounds. It says its members are loyal to the U.S. Constitution rather than to any government leader.

Three Oath Keepers defendants have pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy and are awaiting sentencing. A second set of defendants will go to trial on seditious-conspiracy charges in November.

More than 900 people have been criminally charged in connection with the Capitol riot.

Members of another right-wing group, the Proud Boys, including its former chairman Enrique Tarrio, have also been charged with seditious conspiracy for their roles in the Capitol breach. A trial is expected in that case in December.

Write to Jan Wolfe at jan.wolfe@wsj.com

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