Stewart Rhodes: Oath Keepers founder to stand trial over seditious conspiracy

Founder of extremist militia group one of five accused in high-profile January 6 case

Stewart Rhodes is one of five members of the Oath Keepers standing trial on seditious conspiracy charges for their alleged roles in the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.  AP
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Jury selection began on Tuesday in the seditious conspiracy trial of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four other members of the extremist militant group for their alleged roles in the attack on the US Capitol last year.

Mr Rhodes, along with Kelly Meggs, Thomas Caldwell, Jessica Watkins and Kenneth Harrelson, are the first people in more than a decade to face seditious conspiracy charges in what will be the most high-profile case of the Department of Justice's investigation into the January 6 insurrection.

Seditious conspiracy is defined as two or more people conspiring “to overthrow, put down or to destroy by force” the US government. The charge carries a maximum 20-year sentence.

Following Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 presidential election, supporters of Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in an effort to halt the certification of the results. In the months leading up to the attack, Mr Trump had spread false claims about voter fraud.

The attack resulted in the deaths of five people and 140 were injured. A congressional committee investigating the riot has alleged that Mr Trump encouraged his supporters as well as extremist groups to come to Washington on January 6, 2021, and then incited them to march to the Capitol during a speech that morning.

Lawyers for the Oath Keepers members argued they cannot get a fair jury in Washington, but District Judge Amit Mehta on Tuesday denied a request to move the trial out of the capital. Mr Mehta acknowledges that no DC-area juries have acquitted January 6 defendants, but said it does not mean there is “bias or inherent bias of jurors in the District of Columbia.”

Seven out of the 150 prospective jurors who filled out questionnaires expressed some prejudice towards the defendants, the judge said.

More than two dozen people have already been dismissed from jury duty, including a journalist who covered the attack on the Capitol and another person who called that day “one of the single most treasonous acts in the history of this country”.

Lawyers for Mr Rhodes had also asked the judge to prohibit prosecutors and witnesses from describing the Oath Keepers as "antigovernment" or "extremists", arguing it would "add nothing but prejudice into what already promises to be an emotionally charged trial".

Prosecutors have said that the five accused in the seditious conspiracy case had planned to stop the peaceful transfer of power on the day that Congress was to certify Mr Biden's victory.

Three of the accused who entered the building — Ms Meggs, Ms Watkins and Mr Harrelson — have also been charged with property destruction. In addition, Ms Watkins faces a civil disorder charge, while the other four accused have been charged with trying to destroy evidence.

Mr Rhodes is also alleged to have co-ordinated the Oath Keepers' assault on the Capitol with support from a “quick reaction force” stationed at a hotel in Arlington, Virginia.

Oath Keepers were seen on camera wearing communication devices and battle gear when they stormed the Capitol in a military-style formation.

The group's leader has not been accused of entering the building, but phone records show he was communicating with members who did. He was also seen with members outside the building afterwards.

Lawyers for some of the accused are expected to argue that the rioters believed they could be mobilised if Mr Trump invoked the Insurrection Act, which authorises the deployment of military forces to suppress a rebellion.

They will not be allowed to argue, however, that the accused believed Mr Trump had ordered them to march to the Capitol or to block the certification of Mr Biden's victory.

Jury selection was scheduled to begin on Tuesday and will be partially sequestered so jurors do not accidentally come across members of the media covering the trial inside the courthouse.

The trial is estimated to last up to six weeks, Mr Mehta said.

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: September 28, 2022, 9:33 AM