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Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four codefendants face jury in highest-profile Jan. 6 trial

Posted at 6:24 AM, Sep 27, 2022

Of the more than 870 individuals charged in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the United States Capitol, 17 have been accused of seditious conspiracy, the high crime of using force to prevent the peaceful transfer of power from then-President Donald Trump to Joe Biden.

Members of the far-right militia group the Oath Keepers — including the group's founder Stewart Rhodes — have been charged with this offense, the most serious that any of the Jan. 6 defendants face. They will be the first group to go to trial on the charge. Jury selection begins Tuesday.

Rhodes, of Texas; associates Kelly Meggs and Kenneth Harrelson, of Florida; Jessica Watkins, of Ohio; and Thomas Caldwell, of Virginia, will square off against the Justice Department prosecutors with a consistent record of getting judges and juries alike to convict Jan. 6 defendants at trial. Only one defendant in a Jan. 6 case so far has been fully acquitted of the charges brought against him at trial.

The Oath Keepers members are accused of plotting to obstruct Congress' certification of the 2020 presidential election results in support of Trump, traveling to the nation's capital ahead of Jan 6., and coordinating their movements during the riot.

The government has alleged and will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the group's planning, communication, and coordination were vital components of the chaos that occurred that day and were meant to impede Congress' lawful function.

Rhodes, who is not accused of actually entering the Capitol building, and his codefendants have all pleaded not guilty and made various unsuccessful attempts to get the charges against them dismissed and to delay the trial into next year, even in the weeks leading up to the trial.

Charged in January with seditious conspiracy, Rhodes, the founder and leader of the group describedas an anti-government militia of extremists, is accused of laying the groundwork for their actions as early as November, 2020, allegedly publishing a "Call to Action" on his website.

Prosecutors wrote in the indictment that by December, Rhodes' rhetoric alluded to violence, allegedly messaging fellow Oath Keepers that if President Biden were to assume office, "It will be a bloody and desperate fight. We are going to have to fight."

Meggs and Rhodes allegedly wrote in messages around Christmas, 2020, that to succeed they would need to "scare" members of Congress, and a few days later, Caldwell scouted out a hotel in the Washington, D.C., area for the group's use, court documents allege.

At the hotel, prosecutors say, the group staged a "QRF," a so-called quick reaction force, storing arms and other supplies outside the Washington, D.C., city limits. And by January, Caldwell allegedly mapped a route between the group's hotel and the Capitol building, according to court documents.

On the morning of Jan. 6, after the defendants traveled to the Washington area, prosecutors allege some in the group departed for the city donning battle apparel and tactical gear. Later, as the Capitol attack was underway and the group was allegedly coordinating with messaging apps and radios, Rhodes is said to have characterized the rioters as "patriots."

Two separate groups of Oath Keepers then allegedly made their way into the Capitol building.

Meggs, Harrelson, and Watkins are accused of being a part of the group that marched up the Capitol's east side, ultimately joining a mob that allegedly pushed against law enforcement and later searched for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Rhodes and Caldwell were allegedly on the Capitol grounds around that time.

The second group of Oath Keepers to allegedly breach the Capitol has also been charged with seditious conspiracy and will be tried next month.

Prosecutors say in the weeks following the attack, Rhodes bought firearms and messaged others about continuing to oppose Mr. Biden's presidency, including through the alleged use of "local militias."

The defendants have mounted numerous defenses for their actions and deny wrongdoing on Jan. 6.

Some of the Oath Keepers defendants charged with seditious conspiracy have argued they were not in D.C. to attack the Capitol, but to provide security to some of the higher-profile individuals in the former president's camp. Text messagesreleased in an April court filing revealed they were asked to serve as protective details for Trump ally Roger Stone and "Stop the Steal" rally organizer Ali Alexander.

"Ken Harrelson has spent 569 days in solitary confinement under horrendous conditions for a crime he didn't commit," Bradford L. Geyer, Harrelson's attorney, said in a statement to CBS News, "We are looking forward to proving him innocent of these false charges."

The House select committee investigating Jan. 6 will be holding its ninth hearing Wednesday, as some defense attorneys raise concerns that the publicity surrounding the ongoing hearings could taint a jury and prevent a fair trial, and the voluminous evidence in the case could keep the defendants' lawyers from mounting an effective case for their clients without more time to prepare.

Attorneys for Rhodes, Meghan, Watkins, and Caldwell did not respond to a request for comment ahead of the proceedings.

Judge Amit Mehta, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2014 by President Barack Obama, will preside over the jury trial which is expected to span multiple weeks. The judge has said he plans to poll approximately 150 potential jurors to form a group of twelve qualified, impartial jurors to hear the evidence. He has dismissed the defendants' concerns that finding a fair group of jurors would be difficult and rejected attempts to move the trial out of D.C., citing the past Jan. 6 trials that have taken place.

At Mehta's direction, the jury will be semi-sequestered, meaning they will meet each day at an undisclosed location before being bused over to court, entering through a protected door to avoid public and media attention. Like a jury in any other trial, they will be instructed to avoid media coverage of the trial and be restricted from performing their own independent research.

Since charging the group of five and their codefendants with seditious conspiracy, the Justice Department has flipped three individuals connected with the Oath Keepers, securing guilty pleas and cooperation agreements. One of the individuals, leader of the North Carolina Other Keepers William Wilson, told prosecutors that on the evening of Jan. 6, Rhodes repeatedly implored an unnamed individual on the phone "to tell President Trump to call upon groups like the Oath Keepers to forcibly oppose the transfer of power."

If convicted on the seditious conspiracy charge, Rhodes and his codefendants face a maximum of 20 years in prison.

Earlier this month, attorney Kellye SoRelle, who led the Oath Keepers after Rhodes' arrest, was arrested and charged with charges of her own stemming from the Jan. 6 breach. She has pleaded not guilty and denied wrongdoing.