Outcome in Oath Keepers Trial Could Hold Lessons for Coming Jan. 6 Cases
When a jury convicted the leader of the Oath Keepers militia of sedition charges on Tuesday, it was a signal victory for the Justice Department, one that served to ratify the government’s central claim in the case.
Prosecutors established to the jury’s satisfaction that the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was not merely the work of pro-Trump hooligans who lost control in the moment. Rather, it was, at least in part, the product of an expansive plot to stop the transfer of presidential power, conceived and executed by Stewart Rhodes, the top man in one of the country’s most prominent far-right organizations.
And yet beneath the headlines that declared Mr. Rhodes’s sedition conviction a landmark moment in the vast investigation of the Capitol attack, the numerous — and often confusing — verdicts in the case painted a nuanced picture of how the jury interpreted the evidence introduced at the seven-week trial in Federal District Court in Washington.
Those nuances could come into play again as the government seeks to impose accountability on four other Oath Keepers and five members of a different far-right group, the Proud Boys, who are set to be tried on sedition charges in the next few weeks.
Prosecutors were of course successful in winning two convictions on the seditious conspiracy count, the most serious — and politically inflected — charge to have been brought so far in any of the 900 criminal cases stemming from the Justice Department’s sprawling investigation of Jan. 6. Those guilty verdicts were returned against Mr. Rhodes, the No. 1 man in the organization, and one of his top lieutenants, Kelly Meggs, who ran the Oath Keepers’ Florida chapter at the time.
But the three lesser defendants — Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell — were found not guilty of sedition, a rare situation at a conspiracy trial in which more people were acquitted than convicted of the most serious charge in the case.
Moreover, while all five Oath Keepers were convicted of at least two felonies and can expect to serve significant time in prison, the trial marked the first time that any jury had acquitted anyone of any charge related to Jan. 6.
Understand the Events on Jan. 6
- Timeline: On Jan. 6, 2021, 64 days after Election Day 2020, a mob of supporters of President Donald J. Trump raided the Capitol. Here is a close look at how the attack unfolded.
- A Day of Rage: Using thousands of videos and police radio communications, a Times investigation reconstructed in detail what happened — and why.
- Lost Lives: A bipartisan Senate report found that at least seven people died in connection with the attack.
- Jan. 6 Attendees: To many of those who attended the Trump rally but never breached the Capitol, that date wasn’t a dark day for the nation. It was a new start.
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland seemed to capture the equivocal nature of the verdicts in a statement he released on Tuesday night, highlighting the positive aspects of the outcome and skipping over the negative.
“Today the jury returned a verdict convicting all defendants of criminal conduct, including two Oath Keepers leaders for seditious conspiracy against the United States,” Mr. Garland said. “The Justice Department is committed to holding accountable those criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy on Jan. 6, 2021. ”
But a question remains as four more Oath Keepers are scheduled to face seditious conspiracy charges at a trial expected to start next week: Will a jury hold them accountable for sedition, too, even though none of them were leaders of the group?
This second of batch of defendants — Roberto Minuta, Joseph Hackett, David Moerschel and Edward Vallejo — was originally charged with Mr. Rhodes and the others but was given a separate trial by the judge in the case, Amit P. Mehta, who decided it was too cumbersome to try all nine together.
The evidence against them is likely to mirror what the jury heard in Mr. Rhodes’s case as the government retells the story of how the Oath Keepers were outraged by Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory in the 2020 election and undertook increasingly desperate measures to keep him out of office, culminating in the violent events of Jan. 6.
Prosecutors may explain how Mr. Minuta, a New York tattoo artist, was serving as a bodyguard that day for Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime adviser to former President Donald J. Trump, but left his charge to rush to the Capitol in a golf cart as the mob began to storm the building.
Prosecutors may also describe how Mr. Vallejo, an Arizona resident, was placed in charge of an armed “quick reaction force” that had assembled a cache of heavy weapons at a hotel in Virginia and stood prepared to rush to the aid of his compatriots at the Capitol if they ran into trouble.
The four new defendants have more in common with Mr. Harrelson, Ms. Watkins and Mr. Caldwell, the low-level Oath Keepers who were acquitted of sedition, than with Mr. Rhodes or Mr. Meggs. None of them has the notoriety of Mr. Rhodes or held a leadership position in the group like Mr. Meggs.
Mr. Vallejo’s situation has its own twist, which the jury in Mr. Rhodes’s trial never had to consider: He was not at the Capitol at all on Jan. 6, but remained across the river in Virginia, guarding the weapons, as the building was attacked.
Complicating matters even further, a third Oath Keepers trial is set for February, though the eight defendants in that case have not been charged with sedition. This group counts among its ranks Mr. Meggs’s wife, a middle-aged couple from Ohio and a former Broadway actor.
In between the two Oath Keepers trials is another seditious conspiracy trial: that of five members of the far-right nationalist Proud Boys, which is set to begin on Dec. 19. As in Mr. Rhodes’s trial, the Proud Boys case will focus on the organization’s leaders — among them, Enrique Tarrio, the group’s former chairman, and some of his top lieutenants from Florida, Washington State and Pennsylvania.
Prosecutors are likely to base their case against the Proud Boys on hundreds, if not thousands, of encrypted text messages that the government believes show how the group moved increasingly toward using violence to keep Mr. Biden out of office in the weeks between the election and Jan. 6. They are also likely to call some former Proud Boys as government witnesses, perhaps including two high-ranking members, Charles Donohoe and Jeremy Bertino, who pleaded guilty in the case.
But prosecutors plan to use a different — and novel — strategy in their efforts to prove the sedition charges against the Proud Boys, suggesting that Mr. Rhodes’s trial may not be as much of a model.
In convicting Mr. Rhodes, the government focused on the storehouse of weapons in Virginia, claiming that they formed the basis for the central element of the sedition charge: that the Oath Keepers plotted to use force to stop the lawful transfer of power. Mr. Rhodes and most of his co-defendants did not commit any serious acts of violence themselves on Jan. 6, but the jury apparently found that the weapons stashed across the river presented a threat of force sufficient to convict.
Prosecutors at the Proud Boys trial intend to argue that Mr. Tarrio and his four co-defendants — Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl and Dominic Pezzola — instigated other members of the group and ordinary rioters to attack the police, leading to a series of consequential breaches of the Capitol’s security.
“On Jan. 6, the defendants sought to harness the actions of others to achieve their objective of forcibly opposing the lawful transfer of presidential power,” prosecutors wrote in recent court papers. “In so doing, the defendants used these individuals as ‘tools.’”