Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the far-right militia Oath Keepers, was sentenced Thursday to 18 years in prison for his conviction on seditious conspiracy charges for his role in helping mobilize the pro-Trump attack on Capitol Hill on Sept. 1. from January. 6, 2021.
The sentence, handed down in US District Court in Washington, was the harshest sentence yet in the more than 1,000 criminal cases stemming from the attack on the Capitol, and the first to be increased for meeting the legal definition of terrorism.
It was also the first to be handed over to any of the 10 members of the Oath Keepers and another far-right group, the Proud Boys, who were convicted of sedition in connection with the events of January 6.
For Rhodes, 58, the sentence marked the end of a tumultuous and unusual career that included military service, a stint on Capitol Hill and a law degree from Yale. His role as the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers put him in the spotlight and will now send him to prison for what is likely to be most of his remaining days.
In a dramatic nearly four-hour hearing, Judge Amit P. Mehta rebuked Mr. Rhodes for seeking for years, through his leadership of the Oath Keepers, for American democracy to “turn into violence.”
“You, sir,” Judge Mehta continued, addressing the defendant directly, “present a constant threat and danger to this country, to the Republic, and to the very fabric of our democracy.”
As the hearing opened, prosecutors urged Judge Mehta to sentence Mr. Rhodes to 25 years in prison, arguing that violence on Capitol Hill needed to be held accountable and that American democracy was at stake.
Kathryn L. Rakoczy, one of the lead prosecutors in the case, told Judge Mehta that Rhodes had called for attacks on the government for more than a decade and that his role in the January 6 attack was part of a long-standing pattern. . .
The Oath Keepers leader, Ms. Rakoczy said, exploited his talents and influence to incite his followers to reject the 2020 election results and ultimately mobilized them to storm the Capitol in two separate military-style “stacks” in a violent effort to keep President Donald J. Trump in office.
“This is conduct that threatened, and continues to threaten, the rule of law in the United States,” he said.
Ms Rakoczy also noted that Mr Rhodes had shown no remorse for undermining the legal transition of power and continued to advocate political violence. Just four days ago, he said, Rhodes gave an interview from jail, repeating the lie that the election had been marred by fraud and that the government was “going after those on the political right.”
“It won’t stop until it stops,” Rhodes said during the interview, adding that the country needed “regime change.”
As if to prove the government’s point, Mr. Rhodes, in an orange prison gown and his trademark black eye patch, delivered a defiant speech to the court, blaming the media for demonizing the Oath Keepers for lead the attack on the Capitol. He also compared himself to Soviet-era dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the embattled main character in Kafka’s novel “The Trial.”
“I am a political prisoner,” Rhodes said.
The hearing opened a week of sentencing proceedings for eight other Oath Keepers members who were convicted in two separate trials, in November and January, on charges that included not only seditious conspiracy but also obstruction of a congressional proceeding to certify elections. of 2020. . One of Mr. Rhodes’ deputies, Kelly Meggs, who once headed the group’s Florida chapter, was sentenced later Thursday.
The process to sentence all of the defendants began on Wednesday, when some police officers and congressional staff members testified about the horror they experienced on January 6.
Several spoke through tears on the witness stand, describing enduring symptoms of post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt, particularly after many of their colleagues resigned and some committed suicide in the months after the attack.
“I’m a depressed, introverted shell of my old self,” said Harry Dunn, a Capitol police officer who met members of Oath Keepers in the Capitol rotunda. When Mr. Dunn referred to the officers who were injured on January 6 as “true oath keepers,” he shot an angry look at Mr. Rhodes and other members of the group in the courtroom.
In court papers filed this month, prosecutors stressed the importance of severely punishing Mr. Rhodes and his subordinates, saying acceptance of political violence was on the rise in the United States and long prison terms were needed to deter them. . future discomfort.
“As this court knows well, the justice system’s reaction to January 6 bears a significant responsibility for affecting whether January 6 becomes an atypical or defining moment,” prosecutors wrote. “If left unchecked, this momentum threatens our democracy.”
In court on Thursday, prosecutors persuaded Judge Mehta to increase Mr. Rhodes’ sentence, arguing that his repeated calls for violence against the government and his plan to organize a weapons cache outside of Washington in case of an emergency on January 6 should be punished. as an act of terrorism.
“This was not blowing up a building,” Rakoczy said. But “organizing an armed force” and advocating “bloody civil war” came “pretty close,” he said.
The government had asked to apply the terrorism enhancement in four previous cases on January 6, but judges, including Judge Mehta, had denied the requests each time.
From the start of the hearing, Mr. Rhodes’ attorneys, Phillip Linder and James L. Bright, found themselves limited in their efforts to plead for leniency, unable to fully affirm that Mr. Rhodes was repentant or no longer posed a threat. for the goverment. , knowing that his emphatic statement before the court was coming.
Mr. Bright decided not to say anything. When Linder spoke, he simply said that the administration had tried to make Rhodes “the face of January 6,” but that figures like Trump were more responsible for the chaos and violence on Capitol Hill that day.
In the end, Judge Mehta said he had imposed a harsh sentence because the seditious conspiracy was “among the most serious crimes that an individual in the United States can commit.”
He also scolded Mr. Rhodes, telling him that he had not been prosecuted for his political beliefs but because he had “prepared to take up arms and foment revolution” simply because he did not like the results of an election.
“That’s what you did,” Judge Mehta said. “You are not a political prisoner, Mr. Rhodes. You are here because of your actions.
The trial of Rhodes, Meggs and three other defendants—Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell—was a milestone in the Justice Department’s extensive investigation into the Capitol attack. The convictions of Rhodes and Meggs on seditious conspiracy charges marked the first time federal prosecutors have won a sedition case since 1995, when a group of Islamic militants was found guilty of conspiring to bomb several New York landmarks.
Earlier this month, four Proud Boys members, including their former leader Enrique Tarrio, were also convicted of sedition and are scheduled to be sentenced in a series of hearings in August.
Jeffrey S. Nestler, one of the prosecutors, opened Mr. Rhodes’ trial by telling the jury that in the weeks after Joseph R. Biden Jr. won the election, the Oath Keepers leader and his subordinates “concocted a plan to an armed rebellion”. to break the foundations of American democracy”: the peaceful transfer of presidential power.
Closing the government’s case, Mr. Nestler stated that the Oath Keepers had conspired against Mr. Biden, ignoring both the law and the will of the voters, because they hated the election results.
At trial, prosecutors showed jurors hundreds of encrypted text messages from Oath Keepers members, proving that Rhodes and some of his followers were enslaved by outlandish fears that Chinese agents had infiltrated the US government. .and that Biden, whom the Chinese Communist Party called a “puppet”—could cede control of the country to the United Nations.
Prosecutors also sought to show how throughout the post-election period, Rhodes was desperate to contact Trump and persuade him to take extraordinary measures to maintain power.
In December 2020, for example, Rhodes posted an open letter on his website urging Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, a more than two-century-old law that he believed would give the president the power to call in militias like the Oath Keepers to suppress the “coup”, supposedly led by Biden and Kamala Harris, the incoming vice president, who sought to overthrow him.
As part of the plot, prosecutors contended, Rhodes stationed a “quick reaction force” of heavily armed Oath Keepers at a Comfort Inn in Arlington County, Virginia, ready to bring their weapons to Washington if their compatriots on Capitol Hill needed them. they needed. .
Zach Montague contributed reporting.