A federal judge has ruled against a notable attempt to throw out the felony charge that’s the backbone of January 6 criminal prosecutions, bolstering the government’s case against 17 Oath Keeper defendants accused of conspiring to overtake the US Capitol.
“The court is persuaded by none of their contentions,” Judge Amit Mehta wrote in his Monday opinion of the Oath Keeper defendants’ arguments to dismiss their felony obstruction of a congressional proceeding charge.
Mehta decided that the January 6 rioters’ alleged actions could be charged under the law protecting official proceedings of Congress and characterized as obstruction akin to witness tampering. “If the government can carry its burden of proof at trial, a conviction of Defendants premised on such activities would not violate the First Amendment,” the judge wrote.
His ruling means the case moves ahead to trial.
Defendants in January 6 cases have tried to argue they weren’t obstructing Congress under the law, and that the electoral vote certification couldn’t be called an official proceeding, among other things.
Mehta is now the third judge in the DC District Court to allow Justice Department prosecutors to proceed toward trial with their cases against more significant January 6 riot defendants.
If judges begin to split on the issue, hundreds of cases could be temporarily sent into chaos as appeals play out. But that has not happened yet, and Mehta’s ruling in the Oath Keepers’ case – the largest conspiracy obstruction case in the sprawling riot investigation – is likely to be influential in the courthouse, though appeals are still possible.
To this point, federal prosecutors have allowed dozens of nonviolent rioters to plead guilty to a misdemeanor offense, which caps their potential jail time at six months. Only 19 of the 50 misdemeanor cases ended with incarceration, according to CNN’s latest tally. An additional four defendants have been convicted of felonies, and they received sentences ranging from 8 months to 3.5 years in prison.
Members of the Oath Keepers are among the right-wing extremists alleged to have played a major role in the January 6 attack, with some seen weaving through the crowd in military formation and entering the Capitol Rotunda.
The group – a nationwide, decentralized anti-government militia – recruits military veterans and pushes a conspiracy theory asserting that the government is trying to destroy American liberty. The name is an allusion to an oath sworn by police and military personnel to defend the Constitution against “all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
CNN’s Paul LeBlanc contributed to this report.