Stewart Rhodes and fellow member of Oath Keepers found guilty of sedition

By Elise Hammond, Maureen Chowdhury, Hannah Rabinowitz and Holmes Lybrand, CNN

Updated 10:39 PM ET, Tue November 29, 2022
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5:30 p.m. ET, November 29, 2022

Key things to know about the 5 defendants

From CNN's Hannah Rabinowitz and Holmes Lybrand

Kelly Meggs, Stewart Rhodes, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessican Watkins and Thomas Caldwell 
Kelly Meggs, Stewart Rhodes, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessican Watkins and Thomas Caldwell  (Marion County Sheriff's Office/Reuters/Getty Images/Montgomery County)

A verdict will be read soon in the historic seditious conspiracy trial of five alleged Oath Keepers ��� a closely watched test of how the Justice Department is prosecuting US Capitol rioters.

The trial began more than seven weeks ago and has featured hundreds of messages, audio recordings, and videos of the defendants’ revolutionary rhetoric in the wake of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential victory, and of their actions as they traversed the US Capitol grounds during the riot on Jan. 6, 2021.

Defense attorneys argued that that there was no uniformed plan among the group, that the far-right Oath Keepers militia group only attended the Stop the Steal rally to provide security details for speakers, and that the inflammatory recordings of the defendants were nothing more than “locker room talk.”

Stewart Rhodes, Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell have all pleaded not guilty.

Here are key things to know about the defendants:

  • Stewart Rhodes, 57, founded the Oath Keepers in 2009 and has led the group ever since. Prosecutors say Rhodes stood outside the Capitol on January 6 acting like a “general” as his followers breached the building.
  • Kelly Meggs, 53, is a leader of the Oath Keepers’ Florida chapter and, according to the government, led the infamous “stack” formation of Oath Keepers inside the Capitol on January 6.
  • Kenneth Harrelson, 41, is also a Florida Oath Keeper and allegedly acted as Meggs’ right-hand man on January 6.
  • Jessica Watkins, 40, led her own militia in Ohio before joining the Oath Keepers in the wake of the 2020 election. Prosecutors say Watkins, who is transgender, allegedly entered the Capitol with Harrelson and Meggs and coordinated with Caldwell in the weeks prior.
  • Thomas Caldwell, a 68-year-old who testified that he is not a member of the Oath Keepers, allegedly helped organize the armed quick reaction force stationed outside of DC on January 6. Caldwell also hosted Oath Keepers at his Virginia farm, prosecutors say, and communicated with Watkins during the riot.

5:07 p.m. ET, November 29, 2022

The jury asked for clarification on seditious conspiracy charge

From CNN's Hannah Rabinowitz and Holmes Lybrand

The jury deciding the fate of five alleged leaders of the Oath Keepers submitted a note to the judge on Monday, asking for clarification over the definition of seditious conspiracy.

The jury will decide whether the five alleged leaders conspired to commit sedition by plotting to stop the transfer of presidential power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden.

The note to the judge read “Clarify: prevent hinder or delay the execution of any law of the U.S., vs. governing the transfer of presidential power including the US Constitution.”

“There is clearly some confusion on their part for how these concepts connect,” District Judge Amit Mehta said in court Monday. “So i think it would be useful to spell it out.”

When the jury reentered the courtroom, Mehta instructed them that “the seditious conspiracy charge alleges as one of its two objects to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States by force.”

“The law of the United States, for the purposes of this charge, are the laws governing the transfer of power” outlined in the Constitution, he said.  

5:02 p.m. ET, November 29, 2022

Government prosecutors and defense attorneys finished presenting evidence on Nov. 17

From CNN's Hannah Rabinowitz and Holmes Lybrand

Government prosecutors and defense attorneys on Nov. 17 announced they had finished presenting evidence in the Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy trial, wrapping up a seven-week effort to argue whether five alleged members of far-right militia plotted to stop Joe Biden from assuming the presidency.

Prosecutors showed the Washington, DC, jury hundreds of text messages, recordings and videos of the five defendants, brought seized assault rifles into the courtroom, and told the jury about the depths of the militia movement in the wake of the 2020 election.

Defense attorneys rebutted that argument by saying their clients said outlandish things, but never acted violently and never had a concrete plan to storm the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. All five have pleaded not guilty.

The jury is made up of seven men and five women. After lawyers finished presenting evidence, District Judge Amit Mehta asked one juror, a White woman who works in education at a nonprofit, to come back to the courtroom. The juror is in the process of moving to Texas and had spent several weeks expressing concern about finding a place to stay to finish the trial.

Mehta dismissed the juror, who was an alternate.

“It’s sort of nice to stop at least one thing happening in my life right now,” the juror said.

Before leaving the room, she asked Mehta whether another juror, who she described as “my buddy,” could take her seat because it was more comfortable than his. The judge laughed and said yes.

As she walked out, the five defendants, their attorneys, and the prosecutors stood up and applauded.

After she was dismissed, the jury returned to the courtroom. Mehta said to them, “I’m sorry to say you are one fewer, but I know one of you is very happy to be in the second row."

5:04 p.m. ET, November 29, 2022

Oath Keepers Jan. 6 trial puts seditious conspiracy statute — and its history — back into the limelight

From CNN's Tierney Sneed

The history of the seditious conspiracy statute dates back to the start of the Civil War when Congress made it a crime to conspire to overthrow the US government or to conspire to use force to “prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States.”

In the infrequent cases when prosecutors have brought the charge, they have not always been successful in securing a conviction.

The last time it was charged – against a Michigan militia accused of plotting an attack on law enforcement – the count was dismissed by a judge in 2012 who said the Justice Department failed to show that there was a “concrete agreement to forcibly oppose the United States government.”

The way allegations of seditious conspiracy may run into constitutionally protected free speech can pose a problem for prosecutors, according to Mark Satawa, one of the defense attorneys who represented the Michigan militia members.

“The act of speaking, the act of talking about something – and that something may be the overthrow the United States government – but it’s still talking,” he told CNN. “And so the act itself runs afoul of these very deeply held beliefs that we have as a people, this idea that we should be able to bitch about our government.”

In the Jan. 6 case, prosecutors are pointing to alleged statements from Stewart Rhodes calling for a “civil war” to stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s win, as well as concrete steps the Oath Keepers are accused of taking to plan for a violent encounter.

4:48 p.m. ET, November 29, 2022

These are the charges the jury has been considering

From CNN's Hannah Rabinowitz and Holmes Lybrand

A jury, made up of seven men and five women, has been considering a total of 10 charges against defendants Stewart Rhodes, Kelly Meggs, Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson, and Thomas Caldwell, including three separate conspiracy charges, obstructing the electoral college vote, and tampering with evidence.

Here's a look at all the charges:

Seditious conspiracy: All five defendants are accused of planning to use force to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power on Jan. 6.

Conspiracy to obstruct and obstructing an official proceeding: The defendants are all facing charges alleging that they conspired together to, and did, stop Congress from certifying the electoral college votes inside the Capitol.

Conspiracy to prevent an officer from discharging any duties: This charge also relates to the certification of the electoral college vote. The indictment alleges that all five defendants worked together to “prevent by force, intimidation, and threat… Members of the United States Congress, from discharging any duties,” namely, certifying the election.

Destruction of government property and aiding and abetting: Meggs, Harrelson and Watkins, according to prosecutors, were part of a crowd that burst through the Capitol’s Rotunda doors on Jan. 6. They are not alleged to have broken the doors themselves.

Civil disorder and aiding and abetting: Jurors will consider whether Jessica Watkins interfered with law enforcement when she allegedly joined a crowd near the Senate chamber, pushed against and shouted at officers who were guarding the chamber doors.

Tampering with documents or proceedings and aiding and abetting: Rhodes, Meggs, Harrelson and Caldwell are each facing charges for allegedly deleting messages and pictures from their phones or social media accounts after Jan. 6. Prosecutors also allege that Rhodes instructed other Oath Keepers to delete messages after the riot.

4:41 p.m. ET, November 29, 2022

What is at stake for the Justice Department

From CNN's Hannah Rabinowitz and Holmes Lybrand

The Oath Keepers trial – the first of three seditious conspiracy cases set to start this year – is a major test of the Justice Department’s theory that far-right extremist groups plotted to disrupt America’s longstanding tradition of a peaceful transfer of power.

The seditious conspiracy charge is politically risky and notoriously difficult to prove. Cases are brought infrequently, and prosecutors haven’t won a conviction on the charge in decades.

If prosecutors do manage to secure a seditious conspiracy conviction, it could help rebut criticisms that the Justice Department has not been aggressive enough in prosecuting rioters and help dispel claims that the riot was merely a protest that got out of hand.

The verdict could also come with ramifications for a Justice Department increasingly under political fire. When it was unsealed early this year, the indictment against members of the Oath Keepers sparked outrage among some supporters of the former president and figureheads on the right who claimed the allegations were exaggerated and the charges politically motivated.

Law enforcement leaders have continued to warn of the recent rise in domestic extremist threats from lone actors and small groups, a threat some Republican lawmakers have sought to downplay.

Following Trump’s presidential campaign announcement, the verdict could face further scrutiny down the road. The former president – who told his supporters to go to the Capitol on Jan. 6 – has said that, if elected, he would consider “full pardons” for the rioters.

4:58 p.m. ET, November 29, 2022

A verdict has been reached and will be read soon. Here are key things to know about the Oath Keepers trial.

From CNN's Hannah Rabinowitz and Holmes Lybrand

Jurors have reached a verdict in the seditious conspiracy trial of five alleged leaders of the Oath Keepers accused of conspiring to forcibly prevent the peaceful transfer of power from then-President Donald Trump to Joe Biden after the 2020 election.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys confirmed to CNN that a verdict has been reached. Jurors deliberated for more than 17 hours.

The jury, made up of seven men and five women, considered a total of ten charges against defendants Stewart Rhodes, Kelly Meggs, Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson and Thomas Caldwell, including three separate conspiracy charges, obstructing the electoral college vote, and tampering with evidence.

All five have pleaded not guilty. If they are convicted of the most serious charges, each defendant could face up to 20 years in federal prison.

“The case is finally yours, after all these weeks,” district Judge Amit Mehta told the jury last week at the end of the two-month presentation of evidence.

Key moments from the closing arguments: Prosecutors wove together messages, videos, testimony and records to show how the defendants from across the country allegedly joined together to plan and execute a way to keep Trump as president by any means necessary.

“For these defendants, the attack on the Capitol was a means to an end,” prosecutor Kathryn Rakoczy said, adding that the defendants were “self-anointed to stand up for their version of the law, their version of what should have happened in that election.”

Rakoczy continued, “The sense of entitlement that led to frustration, followed by rage and then violence. That is the story of this conspiracy, ladies and gentlemen.”

Rejecting arguments brought by the defense, Rakoczy told jurors that despite claims there was not an explicit order to enter the Capitol that day, there was a clear conspiracy to stop Biden’s ascendency by any means.

Attorneys for the defendants said again and again to the jury that no government witness – including former members of the Oath Keepers there on Jan. 6 – could testify that there was a direct plan to attack the Capitol.

“Call it the big three,” an attorney for Rhodes, James Lee Bright, said. “No plan to storm the Capitol … no plan to breach the Rotunda … no plan to stop the certification or delay the certification of the electors.”

Others were more direct, including Watkins’ attorney Jonathan Crisp, who told jurors that the government had lied to them, calling the trial “a Michael Bay production.”

In a final rebuke, lead prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler called upon jurors to see the defendants, most of whom are military veterans, as traitors to the country they claim to protect.