By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN and ALANNA DURKIN RICHER Associated Press
WASHINGTON | Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and members of his antigovernment group will be the first Jan. 6 defendants sentenced for seditious conspiracy in a series of hearings beginning this week that will set the standard for more punishments of far-right extremists to follow.
Prosecutors will urge the judge on Thursday to put Rhodes behind bars for 25 years, which would be the harshest sentence by far handed down in the U.S. Capitol attack. Describing the Oath Keepers’ actions as “terrorism,” the Justice Department says stiff punishments are crucial to send a message to future possible instigators of political violence.
“The justice system’s reaction to January 6 bears the weighty responsibility of impacting whether January 6 becomes an outlier or a watershed moment,” prosecutors wrote in court papers this month.
The hearings will begin Wednesday, when prosecutors and defense lawyers are expected to argue over legal issues concerning sentencing and begin hearing victim impact statements. Rhodes, from Granbury, Texas, and Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs — who were convicted of seditious conspiracy in November — will receive their sentences Thursday, and six more Oath Keepers will be sentenced later this week and next.
Rhodes and Meggs were the first people in nearly three decades to be found guilty at trial of seditious conspiracy for what prosecutors described as a plot to forcibly stop the transfer of power from President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden. Three co-defendants were acquitted of the sedition charge, but were convicted of obstructing Congress’ certification of Biden’s victory.
Another four Oath Keepers were convicted of the sedition charge in January during a second trial.
Prosecutors are seeking prison sentences ranging from 10 to 21 years for the Oath Keepers besides Rhodes. The judge canceled the sentencing scheduled this week for one defendant — Thomas Caldwell of Berryville, Virginia — as he weighs whether to overturn the jury’s guilty verdict on two charges.
Prosecutors are urging the judge to apply enhanced penalties for terrorism, arguing the Oath Keepers sought to influence the government through “intimidation or coercion.” Judges have so far rejected the Justice Department’s request to apply the so-called “terrorism enhancement” in the handful of Jan. 6 cases it has sought it in so far, but the Oath Keepers case is unlike any others that have reached sentencing to date.
“The defendants were not mere trespassers or rioters, and they are not comparable to any other defendant who has been convicted for a role in the attack on the Capitol,” prosecutors wrote.
More than 1,000 people have been charged with federal crimes stemming from the riot. Just over 500 of them have been sentenced, with more than half receiving terms of imprisonment ranging from a week to over 14 years. The longest sentence so far came earlier this month for a man with a long criminal record who attacked police officers with pepper spray and a chair as he stormed the Capitol.
The sentences for the Oath Keepers may signal how much time prosecutors will seek for leaders of another far-right group, the Proud Boys, who were convicted of seditious conspiracy in a separate trial earlier this month. They include former Proud Boys national chairman Enrique Tarrio, who is perhaps the most high-profile person charged in the sprawling Jan. 6 investigation. The Proud Boys are scheduled to be sentenced in August and September.
Using dozens of encrypted messages, recordings and surveillance video, prosecutors made the case that Rhodes and his extremist group followers began shortly after the 2020 election to prepare an armed rebellion to keep Biden out of the White House.
Over seven weeks of testimony, jurors heard how Rhodes rallied his followers to fight to defend Trump, discussed the prospect of a “bloody” civil war and warned the Oath Keepers may have to “rise up in insurrection” to defeat Biden if Trump didn’t act.
Jurors watched video of Rhodes’ followers wearing combat gear and shouldering their way through the crowd in military-style stack formation before forcing their way into the Capitol. They saw surveillance video at a Virginia hotel where prosecutors said Oath Keepers stashed weapons for “quick reaction force” teams prosecutors said were ready to get weapons into the city quickly if needed. The weapons were never deployed.
Rhodes, who didn’t go inside the Capitol, took the witness stand at trial and told jurors that there was never any plan to attack the Capitol and that his followers who did went rouge.
His lawyers are urging the judge to sentence him to the roughly 16 months behind bars he has already served since his January 2022 arrest. In court papers filed this month, Rhodes’ attorneys argued that all of Rhodes’ writings and statements were “protected political speech.”
“None of his protected speech incited or encouraged imminent violent or unlawful acts, nor were any likely to occur as a result of his speech,” they wrote.