WASHINGTON — A former “Jesus Christ Superstar” actor was acquitted Wednesday of conspiring with members of the far-right Oath Keepers extremist group to obstruct Congress in the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol attack.
James Beeks — a Florida resident who was playing Judas in the traveling production of the musical when he was arrested — was cleared of conspiracy to obstruct Congress’ certification of the 2020 election and civil disorder after a trial in federal court. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta convicted Beeks’ co-defendant, Ohio resident Donovan Crowl, of the same charges after hearing evidence without a jury.
The Beeks acquittal is a rare loss for the Justice Department in the massive Jan. 6 prosecution, which has led to the arrest of more than 1,000 people across the U.S. Beeks is only the second Jan. 6 defendant to be acquitted of all charges after a trial. Beeks represented himself at trial, though he was assisted by a lawyer who served as stand-by counsel and delivered his closing argument.
Approximately 100 others have been found guilty of at least one count after a trial decided by a jury or judge, and more than 600 have pleaded guilty.
The trial for Beeks and Crowl was what’s called a “stipulated bench trial,” which means the judge decided the case based on a set of facts that both sides agreed to before the trial started. Such trials allow defendants to admit to certain facts while maintaining a right to appeal any conviction.
Prosecutors had previously charged Beeks with other lower-level offenses — including illegally entering the Capitol — but agreed to only go to trial on the two felony offenses and dismiss the remaining counts.
It’s the latest trial involving associates of the Oath Keepers, who have been charged in the most serious cases stemming from the riot. Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was sentenced in May to 18 years in prison on seditious conspiracy and other charges for what prosecutors described as a weekslong plot to keep former President Donald Trump in power after he lost the 2020 election.
Prosecutors say Beeks and Crowl were part of a group of Oath Keepers wearing paramilitary gear who stormed the Capitol alongside the mob of Trump supporters. Beeks joined the Oath Keepers in December 2020 and drove to Washington from Florida before meeting up with a group of extremists ahead of the riot, prosecutors said.
Beeks, who was also a Michael Jackson impersonator, wore a jacket from Jackson’s “Bad” World Tour along with a helmet and was carrying a homemade shield during the riot, according to court papers.
Mehta said Beeks — unlike other Oath Keepers charged with riot-related crimes — didn’t post any messages on social media or exchange text messages with other extremists that could establish what his “state of mind” was leading up to the Capitol riot. The judge also cited a lack of evidence about what Beeks did inside the Capitol that could support a conviction for interfering with police.
“His actions must rise and fall on their own,” the judge said.
Beeks was arrested in November 2021 while he was traveling in Milwaukee with the “Jesus Christ Superstar” tour. He told reporters after the verdict that it “feels like a huge burden” has been lifted of his shoulders.
Beeks acknowledged that he joined the Oath Keepers through the group’s website but said he never met or communicated with any of his alleged co-conspirators before Jan. 6. He said never knew of any plan to attack the Capitol and mistakenly believed the Oath Keepers “were the good guys.”
“I met up with the wrong people,” he said. “I lost my whole career. (Jan. 6) is like a scarlet letter.”
Crowl was part of the Ohio State Regular Militia led by Jessica Watkins, who was acquitted of seditious conspiracy but convicted of other serious charges in the trial alongside Rhodes. In December 2022, Crowl sent a message in a group chat that included Watkins that said “law abiding citizens are fix’n to ‘act out of character’... Time for talk’in is over.”
Crowl’s attorney, Carmen Hernandez, said her client was exercising his First Amendment free speech rights on Jan. 6 without any intent to obstruct Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral victory.
“His conduct was no different than that of many Americans who’ve gone to Congress to peacefully protest and have not been charged with felonies,” Hernandez wrote in an email.