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Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes sentenced to 18 years in prison on Jan. 6 charges

Oath Keepers leader sentenced to 18 years
Oath Keepers leader sentenced to 18 years in prison for sedition, conspiracy, and other crimes 03:06

WashingtonStewart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right group known as the Oath Keepers, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for seditious conspiracy and other crimes related to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, receiving the longest sentence in a Jan. 6 case to date.

Judge Amit Mehta of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia imposed the sentence Thursday after a hearing in which Rhodes declared himself a "political prisoner" and likened himself to former President Donald Trump. 

Prosecutors had asked Mehta to impose a sentence of 25 years in prison, saying Rhodes, who is 58, qualified for a more lengthy sentence under federal anti-terrorism laws given the "threat of harm and the historic significance" of his crimes. Mehta agreed to impose the enhancements, noting that Rhodes did not demonstrate "acceptance of responsibility" for his role in the attack. It was the first time the terrorism enhancement has been applied to a Jan. 6 defendant.

Hours after Rhodes was sentenced, his co-defendant Kelly Meggs, the leader of the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers, was given a sentence of 12 years behind bars. Meggs was convicted of seditious conspiracy alongside Rhodes last November. Prosecutors alleged he spearheaded the effort to enter the Capitol.

Delivering a withering rebuke to Rhodes before handing down his sentence, Mehta said he presents "an ongoing threat and a peril to this country and its democracy." 

Seditious conspiracy "is among the most serious crimes an individual American can commit," he said. "It's an offense against the government, to use force. It's an offense against the people of the country."

A jury convicted Rhodes and other Oath Keepers last November for a host of crimes related to Jan. 6, when a mob of Trump supporters breached the Capitol in an attempt to block the formal transfer of power from Trump to President Biden. 

"You are not a political prisoner, Mr. Rhodes," Mehta said. "You are here for that conduct, not because of your beliefs … You stand convicted because 12 jurors in the District of Columbia ... convicted you of sedition."

"We all now hold our collective breaths with an election approaching.  Will we have another January 6th? That remains to be seen," the judge said of the consequences of Rhodes' actions. 

Capitol Riot Seditious Conspiracy
FILE - Stewart Rhodes, founder of the citizen militia group known as the Oath Keepers speaks during a rally outside the White House in Washington, on June 25, 2017.  Susan Walsh / AP

Meanwhile, during his sentencing, an emotional Meggs told Mehta Thursday that he regretted the situation in which he and his family found themselves, and pleaded for leniency, a striking contrast to Rhodes' defiance. 

"I'm sorry for being involved in an event that put such a black eye on our country," Meggs said.

Meggs reiterated his defense that there was no plan to enter the Capitol that day. Mehta, however, disagreed, and said that while Meggs was clearly different than Rhodes — who Mehta said posed a danger to democracy — the judge said of Meggs: "A jury found that you were prepared to take up arms against your government to prevent the lawful transfer of power."

"I feel your pain today," Mehta added. "I feel it deeply." 

"He continues to advocate for political violence"

Rhodes — the first Jan. 6 defendant to be sentenced for the seditious conspiracy charge — "pushed the idea among Oath Keepers members and others that with a large enough mob, they could intimidate Congress and its Members and impose the conspirators' will rather than the American people's: to stop the certification of the next President of the United States," the government alleged in pre-sentencing filings. 

Addressing the judge before the sentence was handed down, Rhodes said he was "sympathetic" to the trauma that many law enforcement experienced during the Jan. 6 attack, but argued many members of the Oath Keepers were not violent that day.

"I believe this country is incredibly divided, and this prosecution — not just of me, but for every Jan. 6er — is making it even worse," he added. Rhodes told the judge that the Oath Keepers were not at the Capitol to instigate violence, unlike groups like the Proud Boys.

However, according to prosecutors, Rhodes and his fellow Oath Keepers planned for violence ahead of the Capitol breach, communicated via encrypted messages and radios during the attack, and celebrated their actions in its aftermath.   

"It is conduct that threatened and continues to threaten the rule of law in the United States," prosecutors said in court on Thursday. "Mr. Rhodes has been calling for violent opposition to the authority of the government of the United States for well over a decade … He continues to advocate for political violence." 

His defense attorneys argued for a much lighter sentence, noting that he had been in jail since his arrest more than a year ago. 

"They want the court to believe and they want the public to believe that Rhodes caused this," defense attorney Phillip Linder said Thursday. "Rhodes did not cause this." 

"You want to put a face on Jan. 6, you put it on Trump, right-wing media, politicians," Linder added, urging the court to consider their stance that the riot would have occurred even if Rhodes was not present that day. "The people that breached the Capitol first did so on their own."

"It will be 1776 all over again"

During the eight-week-long trial last year, the government presented evidence that included encrypted chat messages, recorded meetings and social media posts to show the defendants made detailed plans to head to Washington ahead of Jan. 6, when lawmakers gathered to count the Electoral College votes and formalize Mr. Biden's victory in the 2020 election. Government lawyers and witnesses said the Oath Keepers' plans included amassing an arsenal of weapons at a nearby Virginia hotel, coordinating movements in a so-called Quick Reaction Force unit and preparing for violence. 

A Yale Law School graduate, Rhodes was the alleged leader of the conspiracy, prosecutors told the jury and argued in sentencing memos. They called him the "architect" of the plan who penned open letters to Trump urging him to try to hold onto power using an obscure, centuries-old law known as the Insurrection Act. "It will be 1776 all over again," Rhodes wrote in a message to other Oath Keepers leaders. "Force on force is the way to go." 

He was not accused of actually entering the Capitol on Jan. 6, but admitted to being near the building. 

The plan, according to the government, began in earnest on Dec. 19, 2020, when then-President Trump told supporters to gather for what he said would be a "wild" rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. In the lead-up to the attack, evidence at trial showed Rhodes' rhetoric growing more extreme, with him discussing revolutions and civil war. 

Defense attorneys argued their clients, including Rhodes, were present in Washington to provide security for high-profile Trump supporters attending the rally near the White House that preceded the attack on the Capitol. Evidence at trial showed many defendants, only some of whom would be convicted on the seditious charge, marching into the Capitol building on two separate occasions during the riot. 

Three other Oath Keepers who were tried at the same time as Rhodes and Meggs — Jessica Watkins, Thomas Caldwell, and Kenneth Harrelson — were acquitted of the most severe count, but found guilty of other crimes. During a subsequent trial, four more Oath Keepers were all found guilty of seditious conspiracy. They are scheduled to be sentenced in the coming days. 

Prosecutors alleged Jan. 6 was not the culmination of the Oath Keepers' alleged conspiracy. It was instead part of a larger plan to oppose Mr. Biden's presidency, one that did not end with the certification of the Electoral College votes. 

They wrote Rhodes "stands out" among the Oath Keepers because of "the frequency and vehemence" with which he urged his followers to oppose the election results and "retaliate against government conduct." 

Defense attorneys argued at trial that the government failed to prove an actual conspiracy to enter the Capitol building existed, contending their clients spoke in hyperbolic yet constitutionally protected ways that did not amount to criminal conduct. 

"None of his protected speech incited or encouraged imminent violent or unlawful acts," the defense team argued. "Mr. Rhodes was focused at the time on getting President Trump to use his power and authority while still in office." 

Rhodes' legal team urged Mehta, the judge, to consider his history as a military veteran and billed the Oath Keepers as little more than a "volunteer organization" meant to assist with disaster relief and community protection.

"The character of the Oath Keepers reflects the character of the man who created it," the attorneys wrote earlier this month in an attempt to get him a more lenient sentence. "Mr. Rhodes gave his life to the Oath Keepers."  

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