The founder of the far-right Oath Keepers group, Stewart Rhodes, was convicted Tuesday of seditious conspiracy for a violent plot to overturn the U.S. President Joe Biden's election, handing the Justice Department a major victory in its massive prosecution of the January 6, 2021, insurrection.
A Washington, D.C., jury found Rhodes guilty of sedition after three days of deliberations in the nearly two-month-long trial that showcased the group's efforts to keep former President Donald Trump in the White House at all costs.
Rhodes was acquitted of two other conspiracy charges. A co-defendant, Kelly Meggs, who led the antigovernment group's Florida chapter, was also convicted of seditious conspiracy, while three other associates were cleared of that charge. Jurors found all five defendants guilty of obstruction of an official proceeding: Congress' certification of Biden's electoral victory.
The verdict marks a significant milestone for the Justice Department and is likely to clear the path for prosecutors to move ahead at full steam in upcoming trials of other extremists accused of sedition.
Rhodes and Meggs are the first people in nearly three decades to be found guilty at trial of seditious conspiracy, a rarely used Civil War-era charge that can be difficult to prove. The offense calls for up to 20 years behind bars.
It could embolden investigators, whose work has expanded beyond those who attacked the Capitol to focus on others linked to Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election. U.S. Attorney Merrick Garland recently named a veteran prosecutor, Jack Smith, to serve as special counsel to oversee key aspects of a probe into efforts to subvert the election as well as a separate investigation into the retention of classified documents at Trump's Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago.
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.
Defense attorneys accused prosecutors of twisting their clients' words and insisted the Oath Keepers came to Washington only to provide security for figures such as Roger Stone, a longtime Trump ally. The defense focused heavily on seeking to show that Rhodes' rhetoric was just bluster and that the Oath Keepers had no plan before January 6 to attack the Capitol.
Jurors heard how Rhodes spent thousands of dollars on an AR-platform rifle, magazines, mounts, sights and other equipment on his way to Washington ahead of the riot. They watched surveillance footage from the Virginia hotel where some Oath Keepers stashed weapons for "quick reaction force" teams prosecutors said were ready to get weapons into the city quickly if they were needed. The weapons were never deployed.
On January 6, Oath Keepers wearing combat gear were seen on camera shouldering their way through the crowd and into the Capitol. Rhodes remained outside like a "general surveying his troops on the battlefield," a prosecutor said. After the riot, Rhodes and other Oath Keepers went to an Olive Garden restaurant to celebrate, according to prosecutors.
The trial revealed new details about Rhodes' efforts to pressure Trump to fight to stay in the White House in the weeks leading up to January 6. Shortly after the election, in a group chat that included Stone called "FOS" or "Friends of Stone," Rhodes wrote, "So will you step up and push Trump to FINALLY take decisive action?"
Three other Oath Keepers previously pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy.
(With input from AP)