WASHINGTON — For the first time in at least a decade, a jury is set to deliberate federal seditious conspiracy charges, weighing the government's case against members of the far-right Oath Keepers organization who prosecutors say plotted to oppose the peaceful transfer of power by force in the lead-up to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Oath Keepers founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes III is facing trial alongside four other defendants: Jessica Watkins, Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson and Thomas Caldwell. Watkins, Meggs and Harrelson went inside the Capitol during the attack, while Rhodes and Caldwell were present on restricted Capitol grounds on Jan. 6. Rhodes repeatedly tried to get in touch with former President Donald Trump, even after the Jan. 6 attack, encouraging Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act and call upon the Oath Keepers to help keep him in the White House despite his election loss.
After hearing from the government last week and from the defendants' attorneys on Friday and Monday, federal prosecutors got the last word during rebuttal before the case went to the jury late Monday.
"They took matters out of the hands of the people, and put rifles into their own hands," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler told jurors. "They claimed to wrap themselves in the Constitution. They trampled it instead. They claimed to be saving the Republic, but they fractured it instead."
The defendants should be held accountable for "agreeing to commit sedition against the government of the United States of America," Nestler said.
"They are not above the law. We ask you to uphold the Constitution that they tried to subvert," Nestler said.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta told jurors they would begin deliberations at 9:30 a.m. ET on Tuesday and resume deliberations on Monday after the Thanksgiving break.
Federal prosecutors have not proven that the Oath Keepers had an organized plan to storm the Capitol before Jan. 6. Instead they say the alleged co-conspirators agreed to oppose the peaceful transfer of presidential power, including by using force.
Jason Dolan, an Oath Keeper who testified that he was ready to die to keep Trump in office, told jurors that the Oath Keepers seized the opportunity to storm the Capitol when they got the chance.
“I wanted them to be afraid of me,” Dolan said, referencing members of Congress. “If they weren’t going to, in my perspective, do the right thing, maybe they could be scared into doing the right thing.”
Graydon Young, another Oath Keeper who cooperated with the government, said he thought he was part of a "Bastille-type moment in history" on Jan. 6. “I guess I was acting like a traitor against my own government," Young said.
Three defendants — Rhodes, Caldwell and Watkins — took the stand in their own defense during the trial, which began with opening arguments on Oct. 3.
Rhodes testified that he never directed anyone to go into the Capitol and that he said after he learned that Oath Keepers had gone into the building that it was "stupid" for them to have done so. But the government played a video of Rhodes praising the "patriots" who stormed the Capitol and a recording of him saying that his only regret about Jan. 6 was that they "should have brought rifles." Prosecutors also showed that Rhodes tried to send a message to Trump after the attack.
Caldwell, who is accused of helping set up a "quick reaction force" with weapons in Virginia, put a spin on the events of Jan. 6 in testimony before the jury in testimony that seemed to backfire. When his wife Sharon Caldwell said members of Congress were "p-----s" on the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 6, Thomas Caldwell claimed she really meant that “there was a great opportunity for us to start the healing process in our country." He said that when he talked about bringing in "heavy weapons" by boat, he was actually engaged in "creative writing" and just referencing a screenplay he wrote. “Jan. 6 did happen," Caldwell said on the stand, "and I had nothing to do with it.”
Watkins was much more apologetic on the stand than Rhodes or Caldwell. She told jurors that she felt like she was part of "a historic moment" and that rioters "were making history" on Jan. 6. “I feel terrible about it in hindsight," she said but added that her actions were not premeditated. Watkins said what she did was "really stupid" and that she was "just another idiot running around in the Capitol."
The last time the Justice Department brought seditious conspiracy charges was in 2010 when the FBI arrested members of the Hutaree militia in Michigan. A federal judge tossed those charges in 2012, finding the government did not present enough evidence of a conspiracy against the government. In 1995, a jury convicted "Blind Sheikh" Omar Abdel-Rahman and others on seditious conspiracy charges in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Seditious conspiracy is a Civil War-era law that makes it illegal to conspire to "overthrow, put down or to destroy by force" the U.S. government or "to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States" by force.